Siegel: Leafs' Clarkson and the big contract trap

Jonas Siegel

9/17/2013 10:11:26 AM

TORONTO – He was the home run acquisition in the summer of 2009. Formerly a member of the rival Canadiens and a noted thorn in the side of Mats Sundin, Mike Komisarek signed in Toronto for five years and a hefty $22.5 million. It was four years later, almost to the day, that Komisarek had his contract bought out by the organization, the American defender unable to realize the nasty game which brought him to the Leafs, seemingly weighed down by the burden of his sizeable contract.

When free agency opened this past summer it was David Clarkson getting the big deal in this city, inked to an even grander pact which extended over seven years and was worth upwards of $36 million.

Wary of the effect large contracts – and their respective pressures – can have on athletes Randy Carlyle took to drawing a red line on the expectations for Clarkson prior to his exhibition debut with the club on Monday evening. "We don't want him to be anything more than David Clarkson," said Carlyle. "There's a trap at times when players do change teams and contracts become something notable, the first thing they try to do is change the way they play. That's one thing we want to guard against. We want David Clarkson to play the way he's capable of playing and [do] the things he normally does, not try to be anything more than what he's been before."

"I don't read anything or look at anything," Clarkson said of the expected pressures. "All I'm going to do is go out every night and give everything I have. Am I going to be perfect? No. I'm going to make mistakes. But I'm going to play that same kind of style of hockey that got me here."

Clarkson delivered such a brand in his first game with the Leafs. He played with a physical edge, he chirped the opposing bench, he had his opportunities offensively and was generally an irritant.

Thumped at one point in the second frame by Nicklas Grossman, the 6-foot-4, 230 pound behemoth on the Flyers defence, Clarkson went about roughhousing with his much larger opponent. "It was like trying to move a fridge," chimed Clarkson, listed at an even 200 pounds. "It was just more that I didn't like getting hit like that."

Whether Clarkson can live up to a contract of serious proportions will remain an open question, but one the organization isn't contemplating. "I'm not worried about [years] six and seven right now," Leafs general manager Dave Nonis said of Clarkson, hours after the signing was announced in early July. "I'm worried about [the first] one and year one I know we're going to have a very good player.

"I believe that he's got a lot of good years left in him," Nonis continued. "He's not 35 years old."

Clarkson scored 30 with the Devils two years ago, adding 15 in 48 games last season. The Leafs aren't hedging their bets strictly with offence though instead looking to their free agent add to provide decent measures of truculence, leadership and many of the intangibles which can't be measured. "If David Clarkson doesn't score 30 goals in a Leaf uniform, but provides all the other things that we know he's going to provide we're pretty comfortable we're a better team," Nonis noted.

It was fitting then that Carlyle would nod in approval when questioned on Clarkson's unlikely exhibition scrap with Grossman.

"He's done it all his career," he observed. "That's why he is what he is."

And all the Leafs want him to be.

Five Points

1. Clarkson's choice

A teammate of Clarkson while the two were in New Jersey, Mark Fraser was far from surprised when he got word that the Toronto native had landed with the Leafs. "It was no secret that [Clarkson] was a big fan of the blue and white," Fraser grinned. "There could've been 29 other teams in the running and I think I knew who he wanted to sign with more."

2. Bernier debut

Jonathan Bernier made few, if any, changes to his pre-game routine ahead of his first start with the Leafs on Monday night. "It's pretty much the same," he said. "Actually the only thing that changed [is] we have meals here and then I go for a little nap. Pretty much the same routine as usual." Bernier said the most difficult adjustment to a new team, new city, new everything really, was actually on the ice, getting a read on the system his team employs. "You've got to make sure that you know where your [defencemen] are going to be," he said, noting the need for understanding of such tactics on the penalty kill and opposition forecheck. "For me especially, handling the puck, that's a big adjustment."

Bernier stopped 15 of 16 shots before he was replaced by Drew MacIntyre midway through the game.

3. Gardiner revival

It was sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin, the last point that Jake Gardiner felt his confidence dip to where it plunged last season. But after some redemption in the playoffs and an offseason spent back in Minnetonka, Minnesota, Gardiner is feeling revived heading into his third pro season. The 23-year-old looks back to his experience in 2013, one that saw him bounce between the Marlies, Leafs and press box, as likely to be beneficial over the long run. "It was nice to have a down in my career just to know what it's like," he said earlier this week, "try to never experience that again obviously and just keep moving forward." Following that disappointing second season with the Badgers in college, Gardiner returned as a junior and dominated, finishing second to teammate Justin Schultz in scoring among all WCHA defenders.

4. No Maintenance

Troy Bodie has at least one fan in Randy Carlyle. "He's a no maintenance guy," said Carlyle of the imposing 6-foot-4 winger, inked to a one-year deal this past summer. "He's one of those guys that you think if there was a model for your younger players to model themselves after Troy Bodie would be one of those guys. Coaches love no-maintenance players." Carlyle coached Bodie for parts of three seasons in Anaheim, the now son-in-law of MLSE President Tim Leiweke spending the past two seasons in the American League. "He's not a flashy guy," continued Carlyle of Bodie, who played for Dallas Eakins and the Marlies in 2009-10. "I would say he's an up-and-down winger that's going to take the body, good teammate."

Opportunity may just be knocking for Bodie with fellow fourth line element Frazer McLaren scheduled to miss at least two weeks with a fractured pinky finger. Carlyle's fondness for the brash ingredient is known and because of his familiarity with the player, Bodie could sneak his way onto the roster. "I know what he expects," Bodie said of the Leafs coach, "so it's nice for me not to come into this camp blind. I understand what he expects and what kind of player he would want me to be if I was there playing for him."

5. A brief on T.J. Brennan

The Leafs represent the fourth organization T.J. Brennan has been apart in a matter of months. Drafted and bred by the Sabres (a second round selection in 2007), Brennan was finally shuffled off to Florida this past March. He went on to play 19 games for the Panthers, posting a couple goals and nine points. A restricted free agent, he and the front office in Sunrise couldn't come to terms on a new contract and thus Brennan was on the move again, this time to Nashville for Bobby Butler in mid-June. The Predators opted not to qualify Brennan and aimed to sign him to a two-way deal. Brennan though, desiring some level of control, declined and became an unrestricted free agent. Sensing some opportunity and a good fit, he signed with the Leafs for one year on a one-way deal. "It seemed like a good partnership here," said Brennan, who played 22-plus minutes on Monday, paired with Gardiner against the Flyers. "It definitely seemed like somewhere I could grow and really settle in and take the things I've learned from Buffalo, Florida and the minors and really establish myself." 

The Leafs like the edge and offence Brennan can potentially provide – he scored 14 goals with Rochester in 2013 – and see his addition as an opportunity to inject depth on the blueline.

Quote of the Night

"I wouldn't say it was a classic NHL game."

-Randy Carlyle on his team's 4-3 loss in the shootout.
Up Next

The Leafs travel to Ottawa for a Thursday clash with the Senators.