Signed by New Jersey as an undrafted free agent in 2005, David Clarkson took the long road to the NHL. Nearly seven years later, the rugged power forward is a big key to the club's chances to qualify for the Cup Final.
"Good things come to those who wait." It's an age-old saying that attempts to prove the virtue of being patient and how patience can pay off in a big way somewhere down the road.
The 28-year-old winger's road to the NHL was not of the fast-track variety taken by many top prospects, but rather one of patience and endurance for a hard-working, blue collar player.
After three decent junior seasons with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers -- where Clarkson scored 72 goals and racked up 440 penalty minutes in 160 games -- the forward went undrafted, eventually signing with the New Jersey in August of 2005.
He netted 33 goals and spent 383 minutes in the sin bin over two seasons with the Devils' AHL affiliates in Albany, and Lowell before making the jump to New Jersey near the end of the 2006-07 campaign.
Clarkson hasn't looked back since.
With seasons of nine, 17, 11 (in a 46-game campaign in which he suffered a broken tibia), and 12 goals in his first four NHL campaigns, 2012 has been an absolute breakout year for the 6' 1", 200-pound right winger. He recorded his first-ever 30-goal season, giving the Devils another huge goal-scoring weapon to complement the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora.
The entire group works hard every night, but a dynamic that Clarkson brings to the table in which perhaps the others do not possess is his toughness (as evidence by his 138 PIMs), as he continues to blossom into one of the game's premier power forwards. In 378 NHL games, Clarkson has now potted 82 goals and registered 692 penalty minutes.
Clarkson also delivered seven game-winning goals in 80 contests in 2012, which nearly doubled his total of eight in 298 games prior to the start of the season.
The Toronto native's development has continued to trend in a positive direction so far in the first three rounds of the current postseason.
Playing within the confines of a defense-first (and last) style of trapping system employed by Peter DeBoer's predecessors, Clarkson had failed to light the lamp in the first 11 playoff contests in which he participated, and posted just two markers over the course of his first 20 postseason games.
He has managed three goals in 14 contests so far during the 2012 playoffs, including a trio of tallies in the last six outings.
After not figuring in the outcome of the first game of the Eastern Conference Final series with the New York Rangers, Clarkson scored his third goal of the playoffs early in the third period of Wednesday night's 3-2 win in Game 2, deflecting an Adam Henrique shot past netminder Henrik Lundqvist and inside the far goal post for what eventually became the game-winning goal.
"David Clarkson comes off a Game 1, I think he was real average, to now outstanding tonight and scored a big goal for us," said DeBoer, who should have some experience with Clarkson coming up with timely goals, as he coached the winger during his seven-year stint with Kitchener before moving to the NHL.
Clarkson's game is exactly what is needed in order for the Devils to experience any kind of success against New York, a team that finished tops in the East due to their stingy defense and Lundqvist, one of the world's best at his position.
If Lundqvist is able to see the New Jersey shots and has no traffic in front to impede his sight lines, the Rangers could easily take the series in quick fashion.
What the Devils were able to do in the previous round against the Philadelphia Flyers was to establish an intense forecheck, control the walls, and set up a presence in front of Ilya Bryzgalov. That strategy worked to perfection as NJ ousted Philly in a short five-game series, with two of the wins coming courtesy of Clarkson goals, the second of which was the series-clincher.
New Jersey has every right to be optimistic after their Game 2 triumph effectively wrestled the invaluable home-ice advantage the Rangers had fought so hard to secure throughout the year. Clarkson's performance is a big reason for that optimism.
"Everybody needs to play with a lot of energy, but I think Clarky is a guy that is hard to play against when he’s strong on the puck, on the boards, and when he gets himself positioned well in front of the net and be able to make some plays around the net," said goaltender Martin Brodeur after Wednesday night's victory. "I thought he was a pretty dominant player in the offensive zone, and we need him to be like that a little more."
Having already mentioned the value of infusing physicality and an up-tempo style to the New Jersey attack, Brodeur then made an all-encompassing statement as to Clarkson's ultimate contribution to the club.
"Every time he scores, it's a game-winner," noted the legendary goaltender.
He's correct. This year Clarkson has been perfect, scoring three times and all three of them have, indeed, been game-winners. The 28-year-old winger now has scored five career playoff goals, and four times they have been the game's winning tally.
Clarkson's play during the 2012 playoffs has taken pretty much the same course as the rest of his career -- beginning slowly, but blossoming in the end. Clarkson started off the postseason with no goals in his first eight games, but has now netted three in the last six outings.
The relationship has been proof-positive for the skeptics; sometimes, good things do come to those who wait. In a society where instant gratification is the order of the day and the evidence of any such patience being rewarded appears a rarity, the saying could not be any more true from the perspective of both the Devils and Clarkson.
As the hard-nosed winger continues to contribute in any way possible to help his club win -- whether that be delivering a bone-jarring check, cycling the puck with his linemates to pin the opposition deep in their own zone, dropping the gloves, or notching another clutch goal -- Clarkson's arrival as a difference-maker could be a key component in an eventual return by Lord Stanley to the Garden State.