Custom Search

The David Clarkson rebound factor

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.


  1. If Clarkson had signed for a much lessor amount he would not have been judged so harshly. Unfortunately, in this salary cap era , if a player doesn't play up to his contract he is castigated as someone who is using up cap space that could be better used elsewhere.

    Clarkson ran into a perfect storm last season. Suspension, injuries and a coach who didn't find him a fit on a line and who didn't use him on the power play (where he scored a goodly number of his points for the Devils) all led to a forgettable season.

    l believe that he will bounce back to have a typical Clarkson season...grit, tenacious forechecking, solid defense and 35-40 points. If he achieves this level I don't think we will have too much to complain about.

    1. And if Clarkson delivers that, Pete Cam, he can help make a difference this season. He just needs to be the David Clarkson he was in New Jersey.

  2. Hi Michael.
    I may be more sympathetic to Clarkson and his struggles last year than most. I don't think he could have joined a team so different in every way to New Jersey. I think he may have adjusted better had he been able to continue on a line with Bolland. I thought he was much better toward the end of the season but he was playing with a split elbow injury that continued to worsen.

    The thing I find a little unfair is that, in spite of the organization claiming that scoring was not the reason for them acquiring Clarkson, and I expect the 30 goal season was an anomaly, scoring seemed to be the focus for Carlyle or Nonis. Instead of letting him find his game in his own way on the third line, Clarkson was thrust onto the second line and expected to contribute. He was never a good fit there and was bound to struggle, yet they just kept trying it. I think his usage, the lack of structure, the expectations and pressure for him to produce forced him to try to change the way he has always played and what has made him successful in the past.

    Every Clarkson stat dropped like a rock in Toronto, including his usually very good possession numbers and shots on goal. A severe drop in possession is not a surprise any more with Carlyle behind the bench. I hope for Clarkson's sake Randy and his new staff can figure it all out.

    I believe Clarkson can become a reliable player for the Leafs and hopefully he learns to ignore the white noise. I don't doubt his effort. At this point I'm really tired of hearing about his contract. It's done, I'd just as soon we all moved on. Colleen

    1. All fair points, Colleen- and maybe that's why I talked about undue expectations. He can still (hopefully) be a contributor here.

  3. It has often been said that Clarkson needs to play in a highly structured environment in order to excel.

    Perhaps the Leaf players will learn to buy into more of an integrated team concept and Randy may have the motivation to finally deploy more pieces throughout the lineup (given the pressure to do so from 'above'). If all of that translate into a more reliable and structured game (at the very least, on whatever line that Clarkson finds himself positioned to play 'his' game), then we can hope for the positives we anticipated with his arrival.

    Failing that... the patience will be lacking with his financial albatross contract...

    One wonders if players ever think "I'd rather take a lesser contract, play my game and be loved by the fan base" to boot. The millions they would still earn should be plenty for anyone to have a blessed 'retirement' existence, let alone a fulfilling career (but that is another topic, isn't it Michael?!).

    1. Clarkson was an important player in New Jersey, perhaps for the reasons you cite, InTimeFor62. He "fit".

      Here, that wasn't the case last year. We'll see if this season is different!

      It does seem rare that a player will take less money to be where they feel they'll be happy. Ray Bourque did it in Boston as I recall, before finally accepting a trade to Colorado.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Clarkson was caught in a downward spiral last season mixed with injury problems and he couldn't get out of it. This happens sometimes. There is no way that could have changed for last season. Sometimes it is that way and you have to live with it. The only thing that helps is a clear cut.

    The problem is that somehow this myth was created around Clarkson while he was with the Devils
    and everybody considered him a better player than he actually is.

    But let's look into Clarkson a bit more. His best season saw him score 30 goals, his second best 17. He never scored more than 15 Goals in another season. The highest amount of assists he scored were 16. In only two seasons he had more than 30 points (32 in 08/09 and 46 in 11/12) !!!!!!
    And as you mentioned he was never really a plus player one year he was +1 and the other +3 while he was a - in his other NHL years (how dare you bring that up while we learned from Jonas Siegel there is no worth in +/- (I am sorry I can't help myself)).

    What ever he is able to do besides that, however can an organization like the Leafs be that stupid and create a contract like that for a player like that. I am sorry Colleen but that has to brought up.

    I only brought these numbers up to make the lunacy clear! Pete suggested 35 - 40 points and I am sure he considered that modest numbers. But if he scores more than 30 points we have to call it a very good season for David and if he should really reach 40 points it would be a fantastic season for him.

    And this is the huge gap between wish and reality in Clarksons case.

    The other problem is, he played for the Devils, a very special team that lives in a cocoon of it's own
    and has a GM that makes a habbit of finding players that nobody else wants and that fit into the Devils system.

    Clarkson will play much better next season, but to be succesful he has to play on a line that is able
    to pressure the opponent in the offensive zone and is able to feed him the puck. He often scores on rebounds and second chances and from passes that feed im in short distance to the goal.
    But the Leafs score their majority of goals off the rush and that is an environment that Clarkson can not be succesful in. Clarkson is a type of player that needs linemates that fit his style of play. But that applies to the majority of hockey players. It now comes down to Carlyle to form a line that plays that way. This is his style of hockey so he should be able to do so.

    Players who play the way Clarkson does, intense and using their body much usually decline in their 30s very fast.

    1. Hi Marcus- Clarkson is a grinding third line player who was a fit in Jersey. Here, he didn't connect, so this year he has to stay healthy and find the right linemates to be at his best, agreed.

      The first season in Toronto can be a challenge, but I expect Clarkson will bounce back. As fans, our expectations should be in line with his history- not his contract. Whatever his point totals, fans no doubt would like to see him be a gritty, tough-to-play-against winger. Thanks Marcus.