The Toronto Maple Leafs are nearly three months into the David Clarkson experience, and the free agent signing that polarized the hockey community has produced as many suspensions (two) as he has goals (also ... two) as of Thursday morning.
That probably is not what the Maple Leafs had in mind when they signed him to a seven-year, $36.7 million contract on the first day of free agency. Some of the locals are already getting antsy waiting for the results.
Will someone please let me know when David Clarkson does something positive for the Leafs?— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) December 18, 2013
But what exactly did they have in mind when they signed Clarkson, a player billed to be in the mold of former Maple Leafs great Wendel Clark?
This was set up for disappointment from the start.
On the heels of using a compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski, a talented and effective two-way player who was coming off a down year offensively when he was badly misused in a defensive role, Clarkson was signed with the newfound cap space. He was the antithesis of Grabovski in the eyes of the Maple Leafs: tough, gritty, the type of player who wins games for you in the corners and along the walls and is willing to throw down when things get real. A man's man of a player. And he even scored 30 goals a couple of years ago, forever earning him the title of "David Clarkson: former 30-goal scorer".
The problem for the Maple Leafs is their idea of what David Clarkson is as a hockey player, and the reality of what David Clarkson is (and what he is going to be over the next seven years) are two very, very different things.
Let's be clear about one thing: Clarkson is not a bad a hockey player. He has some positive skills that are valuable and can help teams win. He is good enough to be a regular on an NHL team (even a good NHL team!). During his time in New Jersey, he was an outstanding possession player, particularly over his last two years there, and when he was on the ice, his team generally created more shots than it allowed, with many of the shots coming from Clarkson himself.
The problem with Clarkson is that even though he is a good, useful player, he is not the type of player that you want to pay $37 million over the next seven years. It's especially true when that move was preceded by the team punting more productive and talented players like Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur -- both of whom are excelling with their new teams in Washington and Ottawa, respectively -- out of town because they didn't fit a particular tough, gritty mold.
He has his positives, but those positives can also quickly turn into negatives.
He's physical, tough and will stand up for his teammates. That's good. But that physicality can also get him into trouble, as it did when he was suspended two different times, costing him 12 of his first 36 games with the Maple Leafs. Or when he's taking an ill-timed penalty, putting Toronto's brutal PK unit on the ice.
He has some of the best possession numbers (shot attempts for and against) on the Toronto roster, even if they are down from his days in New Jersey, and he's doing that despite starting the overwhelming majority of his shifts in the defensive zone and playing against relatively tough competition. That's good.
But even that comes with some negative, because he just isn't going to produce any offense when he actually gets the puck out of his zone and into the offensive zone.
Clarkson's production looks rough for a $5 million-a-year cap hit, but for as little as he's scored, it is it's not that far off from his usual pace. The 30-goal season two years ago is the outlier, not this or any other season.
With a 3.9 shooting percentage, there is probably some poor puck luck on his side, but even if Clarkson were shooting at his normal career level of 9 percent on the same number of shots (51), he would still only have about four goals right now. Reminder: He currently has two.
And that's the problem with Clarkson in the offensive zone. He's just not that good of a shooter for a guy who takes as many shots as he does. Part of this is because his shot just isn't that great. Part of it is because he's the worst type of shooter in hockey: the high volume, low percentage shooter who fires the puck from every possible angle as soon as he gets it in the offensive zone. He's the hockey version of that guy in your pickup basketball game who keeps jacking threes from the corner even though you've never actually seen him make one.
Here is a brief sampling of his early work in Toronto, including a couple of near misses --maybe the one or two goals puck luck cost him -- his two goals -- one of which came on a deflection in front of the net, and the other which barely qualified as a scoring chance; the puck luck evens out? -- and a bunch of "get me at the net" type of plays.
Of course, even that's not the worst thing in the world. It's not great, but it's not terrible.
Getting pucks at the net is good, and every bad shot Clarkson takes is one good shot the other team isn't getting. There just isn't much chance of a reward for Toronto, especially when they're coming from a player that doesn't have great play-making skills to set up his teammates. There's shots, but they're mostly empty shots from an offensive perspective.
The lack of points isn't just about 24 games in Toronto. It's about the previous six years in the NHL, when he's only twice topped 25 points in a season, and only once eclipsed the 35-point mark. And that doesn't even get into the fact that he turns 30 this March, well past the age most players peak in terms of offensive production (age 24-26).
It's going to get worse before it gets better. And it's probably never going to get better.
The Maple Leafs have won just seven of their past 22 games, and there's little reason to believe they're going to get drastically better over the next few months.
When all is said and done, the summer of 2013 could be an infamous one for the Maple Leafs, and giving a good, but not great, player in his late-20s more than $5 million a year for seven years will be a big reason why.