Ten games gone and really what’s been lost?
David Clarkson returns to the Leafs’ lineup Friday in Columbus after his ten-game suspension for leaving the bench to defend Phil Kessel’s honour against Buffalo’s vast John Scott.
Along the way Clarkson lost $269,000 in salary but you get the feeling he will still be fine financially.
The Leafs, meanwhile lost only three of the 10 games he sat out. Their 14 points ties them with Pittsburgh for top spot in the Eastern Conference. A hint on how close the two teams are in practical terms will be furnished Saturday when the Leafs host the Penguins.
Had the Maple Leafs’ problems extended past esthetics, Clarkson’s debut would have drawn a huge amount of attention and attendant expectations.
As Clarkson said “the boys have been winning which makes it easier.”
Expectations, of course, have long cursed free agents whose game can’t match the gargantuan deals they were lucky enough to sign. Consider Mike Komisarek, a natural third or fourth defenceman who seemed to struggle nightly to prove his worth after signing a huge deal.
GM Dave Nonis, for one, is mindful of the phenomenon.
“He (Clarkson) needs to release the reins a little bit because he wants to do so well for the fans of Toronto that he is putting a lot of pressure on himself,” Nonis said during a fan town hall.
You get the feeling that swooning under the expectations isn’t an option for Clarkson who possesses a keen understanding of his own abilities and the place those abilities have earned him. If he felt the least bit squeamish about being in the spotlight there were teams from other cities who would have sprung for a comparable contract.
“I just have to come in, take it step by step and do what I was brought here to do: be around the net, put the puck in the net, be physical, do all those things,” Clarkson said. “I’ve got to try and do what I’ve done my whole career.”
Despite one 30-goal season, Clarkson is not a sniper but a very-high end character player whose most bankable skill is hustle, toughness and a certain disregard for his own comfort.
Easing his way back in should be easier for a Clarkson than say, a Phil Kessel. A goalscorer’s success rate is dependent on variables: the strength of the competition, a hot goalie, an ineffective linemate, a shot that strays just a few inches over the crossbar instead of under it.
In theory at least, anyone can play David Clarkson’s style but few, if any, want to because it is built on sacrifice. Leaving the bench to tackle Scott, who is no larger than France, amply demonstrated Clarkson’s courage.
“I made a decision with my heart and not with my head but I try to play with my heart on my sleeve all the time,” Clarkson said.
That’s a powerful sentence.
When he instinctively left the bench Clarkson, more than he could by scoring 10 goals in the pre-season, showed his stripes.
The Leafs don’t have a pressing need for scoring. Thirty-three goals scored put them behind only San Jose for the league lead.
What they could use a bit more of is help on the forecheck and in monopolizing the puck in the corners. More puck possession should help ease the gaudy margin (nearly eight shots a game) by which the Leafs have been outshot this season.
In that way David Clarkson will be a welcome addition whether he hits the scoresheet or not. The Leafs will be made considerably more formidable the moment he steps on the ice.