Let’s face it, there were quite a number of “highs” last season for the blue and white. At one point, well into the NHL’s regular season, it looked like the Leafs were on their way to a solid playoff seeding in the admittedly middling Eastern Conference. The emergence of James van Riemsdyk as a legitimate star, the promise of Morgan Rielly, the stellar netminding of Jonathan Bernier—these were all among the highlights last year for Leaf supporters.
But we also know that there were a significant number of disappointments and frustrations along the way. Those frustrations included Carlyle’s seeming intransigence in certain areas, game-night roster decisions and another year wasted when it comes to having Phil Kessel on the roster in his prime yet not making a dent come playoff time.
But few things drew the kind of social media fan reaction as the year that newcomer David Clarkson had in Toronto.
Here we had a player who was seemingly coveted for what he could bring to a contender—he had been a key Devil, after all, in their recent run to the Stanley Cup finals. He had fire and passion, could score some goals (even if you set aside his 30 goal outlier season) and played the wing fearlessly. He wasn’t afraid to go to the front of the net, or drop the gloves if needed. He would bring, along with David Bolland, that missing ingredient of experience and playoff savvy to a Leaf group that seemed to need it badly.
But after signing his inflated summertime UFA contract, nothing went quite right for him. That exhibition game suspension cost him dearly, to the tune of the first 10 games of last season. When he came back, the team had done well without him, so the sentiment was that he would not feel the pressure of having to “save” the team. He could just be himself.
But for whatever, reason, every time he took a step forward, his productivity went into decline. He was a step behind the play. He wasn’t scoring much at all. In fact he wasn’t even much of a factor in the non-scoresheet areas most nights. It looked like he was trying hard, but spinning his wheels, as it were.
It’s difficult to lead when you’re struggling on the ice. Throw in some injury problems and by the end of the season, it was a year he would rather, I’m guessing, forget. He was seen by most Leaf fans as a guy who had been paid too much in free agency, and at least for his first season here, had done far too little.
He wasn’t the reason we didn’t make the playoffs, but it feels fair to say that he didn’t exactly help us get there, either.
What was the problem? The obvious declaration here is, I have no idea. Did he play through an injury? Were there conditioning questions? Was he simply miscast, played by Carlyle on the wrong lines?
I’ve compared his situation here before to that, many years ago, of former Red Wing forward Martin Lapointe. Lapointe had been a solid plugger for Detroit, a grinder who could chip in with some timely goals. He certainly was a factor (including offensively) in Detroit winning two of their Stanley Cups during his eight seasons there.
He signed for what was, at the time, a big money contract for a third line player. Boston no doubt saw what the Leafs thought they saw a year ago: a hard-working player on a really good team, who would surely bring that winning attitude to his new team.
In Boston, Lapointe, who was 28 when he signed with the Bruins, put up nice numbers some seasons, but I never felt he was an exact fit there. Of course, he had left an annual contender in Detroit to go to a Bruins squad that was not yet what they were about to become under Peter Chiarelli—a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
In any event, this coming season is pivotal, I believe, for Clarkson in Toronto. Now 30 years of age, Clarkson needs to find a role—and a line where he fits and is comfortable. A cursory look at his stats suggests last season was not an aberration. He was usually a “minus” player in New Jersey. So he obviously brought attributes to the Devils that went beyond his plus/minus and (one season aside) his relatively modest goal production.
There is little doubt his salary created some perhaps unreasonable expectations in Toronto. I’m not sure what exactly we were expecting, but it seems as though we didn’t see it last season.
This coming year, Clarkson will need to be himself. He doesn’t need to play to his contract, but he does need to remind us there were good reasons that Dave Nonis made signing him a priority in the summer of 2013. Whatever that means—scoring more, winning more battles in front of the net, in the corners and along the boards, having a positive influence on teammates and making his linemates better—I sense that’s what Leaf observers want to see.
By all accounts he has maintained a low profile this summer and has worked to get into great shape for training camp. That’s good news.
That said, can he step up and play the way he evidently did in New Jersey, where he seemed to be universally applauded for his work ethic and attitude?
If so, the much maligned signing of a year ago will become yesterday’s news, and Leaf fans will be thrilled to see Clarkson embrace a productive role in Toronto.
If not, fans will have little patience for a repeat of last season.