Heading into the 2022-23 season, Brandt Clarke looked to make a serious push to be a full-time NHLer. After a dominant rookie tournament followed by a viable pre-season, Clarke initially made the LA Kings.

He was in and out of the lineup, as the management and coaching staff wanted him to ease into an NHL role. Clarke looked like a compatible NHLer in all of his games played.

Image Credit: Evolving Hockey

Clarke had two assists in nine games, including this incredible assist against the Tampa Bay Lightning:

Clarke was unmistakably up to the NHL level, and fans wanted to see more of him. But after his ninth NHL game, fans didn’t hear or see Clarke for two weeks. After not playing in those 14 days, Clark went to the Ontario Reign of the AHL. There, he totaled one goal and one assist in 5 games.

Players on entry-level contracts who committed to CHL teams can only play in the NHL or their respective CHL teams. But there is a loophole. Players who play on NHL rosters and haven’t played in two weeks are allowed to go to the AHL for conditioning. The Seattle Kraken did the same with the fourth overall pick, Shane Wright.

Following his five-game stint in Ontario, the LA Kings loaned Brandt Clarke to Team Canada for the world junior championship in Halifax. 2023 was the first year where Clarke played for Hockey Canada. In years prior, he was notably slighted of a roster spot. Luckily for Brandt, in his first and last year playing in the U20s, he and team Canada came out on top with gold. Clarke had two goals and eight points in seven games.

Then, the sending down of CHL players began. The Winnipeg Jets assigned Brad Lambert to the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. The Seattle Kraken sent Shane Wright to the Kingston Frontenacs (he was traded to the Windsor Spitfires later). And, of course, the LA Kings allocated Brandt Clarke to the Barrie Colts of the OHL.

As expected, there are arguments within the fanbase on whether or not this is a good decision. Of course, the discourse is fair. Clarke was LA’s eighth overall pick in the 2021 draft, and he had looked like he belonged with LA during his nine-game trial. Sean Walker‘s inconsistency and lack of discipline made the move look even more controvertible, seeing how Clarke outfoxed Walker in his time in LA.

But realistically, this move had to ensue.

As we’re all familiar, the LA Kings have a logjam on the right side of the defense. Drew Doughty, Matt Roy, Sean Durzi, Sean Walker, and Jordan Spence have all appeared in NHL games this year. Durzi has been forced to adapt to playing on the left side – which he has adjusted well. The logjam of right-shot defenders would’ve likely kept Brandt Clarke out of the lineup on a nightly basis.

So what would the point of keeping Clarke in the NHL if he would’ve only played half of the remaining games at most?

Realistically, Clarke needs heightened minutes to flourish. If he were to stay in the NHL with LA, he would’ve been playing third-pair minutes. Most of his ice time would come during practices.

Even though Clarke’s offense put him over other players on the Kings’ roster, as we saw in the world juniors, he’s not ready.

Defensively, he still has a lot to learn. He fails to read plays fluidly – he lacks a sense of scanning. He often finds himself getting involved in unneeded puck battles, which causes him to flee away from his destined position. Of course, it’ll take years for him to mature, but the more he plays, the more he’ll learn. And we all know that Todd McLellan wouldn’t play him, so for him to learn through game experience, why not send him down to the OHL, where he’ll likely lead Barrie in ice time every game? We all want to see Brandt Clarke in the NHL. That’s hard to doubt. But he has to learn the importance of proper development and patience. The best thing the Kings can do for Brandt right now is to give him his destined ice time and let him garner some conviction in the process.

This move also saves some trouble for Rob Blake and the management crew. With Clarke not exceeding nine games in the NHL, he’ll be able to have his contract slide an extra season. If Clarke were to play his 10th game this season, he would’ve been an RFA following the 2024-25 NHL season. But now that he’s in Barrie before playing his 10th NHL game, his contract slides one year. Clarke will be an RFA filling the 2025-26 year. That lets the LA Kings contain Brandt Clarke to only $894,167 against the cap yearly until 2026.

From a management standpoint, having a top-four defender at (close to) league minimum would help build a successful team. If he were to play in the NHL this season, he would’ve only materialized in about 30 (ish) games, and the Kings would’ve lost a year on the contract. Why waste his skill and a year of a contract in the press box?

Finally, the LA Kings have been a good team, even without Clarke. We’ve all seen how hot the Kings have looked since their 6-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Why mess with an ingratiating roster? Even the defenders who have looked the roughest have been playing some of their best hockey of the season. As much as we would’ve liked to know how much Clarke could help this team, it’s best to ride the hot hand and not mess with what currently works.

Sending down a former top-ten pick to the OHL despite a hot start isn’t fun, but it had to happen. Brandt Clarke will push for the memorial cup with his OHL club while gaining playing time and experience. Instead of sitting in the press box every game, he’ll be able to display his skill on a nightly basis. While we all want Clarke to play with LA, this move was the best of both worlds. Clarke will have one last chance to push for a championship with the Barrie Colts, and the LA Kings will roll with what they have now.

Let’s accept it: sending Brandt Clarke down to the OHL was the best option for both sides.

Cover Image courtesy of Getty Images

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