It’s hard to watch David Clarkson with the Leafs and come to the conclusion that he is not working hard, not trying, or that he doesn’t care. But somehow, from the get-go this season things have simply not worked out for him. From the season starting with a prolonged suspension to various injuries, it's been a difficult first year in blue and white for Clarkson. Throw in some unspectacular stats (11 points in 57 games, a minus 14 on the plus/minus scale) and we don't have to say a whole lot more.
Every time we think he has turned a corner and started to produce a bit offensively, he goes quiet, or at least his production does. We seem to notice him mostly for not making a contribution to what should be a formidable second line with Kadri and Lupul, or for taking ill-timed and costly penalties.
His physical game, determination, puck-winning abilities and leadership on and off the ice have faded into the background as the Leaf faithful are looking in vain for something that a 5 million dollar player is supposed to bring—fair or not. Looking ahead to next year, we don't even know what line he fits on best. Sigh.
I guess because I’m one of those typical old-time Leaf observers, I can’t help but bring up the fact that this has happened before throughout Leaf history. That is, that the Leafs, long before the age of free-agency (which of course is how Clarkson came our way), would trade for coveted players only to see them arrive and flail around, never quite (some not even close to) reaching the heights that made them appealing to Leaf management and the fan base in the first place.
Names? You want names? Here are but a few:
- There may not be a player in my Leaf rooting history that I wanted more than Dan Maloney in the mid-1970s. Then Leaf General Manager Jim Gregory finally obtained the former LA King and Red Wing captain (for a high price; speedy winger Errol Thompson and two first round picks) in February of 1978. The rugged, grinding albeit slow skating winger helped the Leafs upset the up and coming Islanders in the playoffs in a massive surprise that spring, but beyond that, he was not an impact guy in Toronto. He wasn’t old (maybe 28 when he acquired him), but he was one of those players who played hard minutes, and his career ended quietly in the early ‘80s. (He went on to coach the Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets.) Solid individual, great team guy. But we got him too late.
- Brad Maxwell: the big, smooth skating offensively productive North Star defenseman who made the NHL at the tender age of 20 looked to be a find for Leaf management in the ‘80s. Unfortunately, the guy who looked calm and confident (and 10 feet tall) in a Minnesota uniform suddenly looked ordinary and never blossomed with the Leafs. (We actually picked him up in a deal that sent speedy forward John Anderson, the ex-Marlie junior, to the Nordiques.) Maxwell had been an outstanding junior in New Westminster, playing in several Memorial Cups if I remember correctly. But he ended up part of the pretty uninspiring mid-‘80s Leaf history, another really talented player we picked up too late—though he, too, was only 28 when he joined the Leafs. To provide context: the year before he played for Toronto, he was a plus 22 for Quebec. Here, he was a minus 27. He retired by the time he was 30.
- Al Secord was one of the best all-around forwards in hockey with the Blackhawks in the 1980s. A true power forward in every sense, he could do it all—score, make plays, hit and fight. Few wanted to tangle with him. The former Boston draft pick developed into an elite player. Over a two-year period, he scored nearly 100 regular season goals and piled up almost 500 minutes in penalties. I kid you not. Where can you find a player like that? So we traded for him (sending Rick Vaive and Stevie Thomas the other way…) and Eddie Olczyk. In Toronto, Secord put up the penalty minutes, but not the points. He was 29 when he became a Leaf. An excellent player, just not in Toronto.
- Lots of Leaf fans and VLM readers remember Larry Murphy. He was the guy who was a top draft choice with the LA Kings, helped Mario Lemieux and the Penguins win two Stanley Cups, and later was pivotal in the Red Wings winning two of their championships. In between, he played two unforgettable seasons for the blue and white. Granted, he was maybe 33 or so when he arrived, and his “stats” were just fine. But he was booed and criticized, never meeting expectations. Yet he was successful again in Motown. Are you seeing a pattern here?
- Eric Lindros may have been the one player in relatively recent memory that Leaf fans agitated management to get for years before we finally got him. Anyone who saw Eric in his prime knows how intimidating and formidable a presence he was. He was Mark Messier, but bigger, tougher and I dare say better. (Some may disagree, but he was awfully good.) By the time we were finally able to “bring him home” to Toronto, he was 32 years old and physically broken down. He gave everything he had here, but it wasn’t to be.
My point in all this, in the context of the season Clarkson has had? This is all happened in Leafopia before. I’m sure fellow VLMers can add their own names to this list.
Timing, I guess, is every thing. I have no doubt Clarkson has a big hockey heart, and has done everything he can to contribute to the Leafs this season. As some of us have opined here, he may well play a key for Toronto role next year and beyond.
But in reviewing my own memories today, it feels like this is another Maple Leaf movie we have seen before. In Clarkson’s case, the acquisition cost us only money, not assets. That said, his presence has meant some young Leaf hopefuls have missed valuable development time here in a season that many of us thought would at least end with a playoff berth.
So yes, we’ve seen this scenario unfold before. Will the ending be any different this time?