Sens lucky Leafs bust Clarkson declined their offer

The lament of every fisherman is “the big one that got away.”

NHL general managers have their own hits and misses, big fish they pursue in rough, open waters. Sometimes they reel them in, more often they miss.

Routinely, the free agent that teams DON’T sign turns out to be the greatest move of all. Genius, by default.

This comes to mind in any discussion of David Clarkson, the gritty, longtime New Jersey Devils winger hotly pursued by the Ottawa Senators last summer, but who today represents the worst free agent signing of last summer. With a distressing seven-year deal for a 29-year-old of limited skill, the Toronto Maple Leafs invested $36.75 million in Clarkson, or a cap hit of $5.25 million.

Just over three years ago, Clarkson was being paid $875,000 by the Devils. In 2010, he signed a three-year contract with a cap hit of $2.6 million, reasonable compensation for a character, third-line player who contributed 24 points per season on average during his first four full seasons with the Devils.

Timing is everything. Clarkson delivered his best numbers as free agency approached — a 30-goal, 46-point spree in 2011-12 and then 15 goals and 24 points in 48 games last season. On a talent-starved Devils roster, Clarkson progressed from a 12- or 13-minute per game grinder into a power play guy getting 16, 17 precious minutes a night.

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