Siegel: Clarkson's impact not limited by scoring drought

Jonas Siegel

11/18/2013 10:28:45 PM

TORONTO – Standing comfortably by his dressing room stall, David Clarkson refuses to dodge questions about a goal drought that's lingered 10 games into the start of his Maple Leafs career. He's willing answer queries for as long as needed.

"Ask whatever you want," he says.

And he understands the questions. But he also knows why he was brought into the fold in Toronto and why Dave Nonis and company chose to pony up seven years at $36.75 million.

"I wasn't brought here to score 50 goals," Clarskon said earnestly after practice on Monday morning. "I was brought here for that full game that I bring, competing every night."

Nonis made that point clear on the day he signed the Mimico native last July. The considerable size and weight of the deal aside – not to mention the 30 goals he scored two seasons ago – internal expectations for the 29-year-old did not hinge strictly on offence but instead on the range of tools and experience he could contribute to a group prospectively on the rise.

And though he hasn't scored, with bad luck in a mostly defensive role primarily to blame, Clarkson has generally played that part with the Leafs, admittedly still adjusting to the new confines of life in Toronto.

"He hasn't really let it affect anything about him," James van Riemsdyk said of Clarkson's goal drought during a conversation with the Leaf Report. "I think he's come in and filled his role; [he's] played hard, finished checks, stuck up for his teammates and had a couple tough bounces as far as goal-scoring [goes]..."

Predictably pesky and a willing physical combatant, Clarkson has actually been at his best as a puck-controlling, forechecking burden deep in the offensive zone – something the group at large has struggled with until spurts recently. Effective in that regard mostly alongside Mason Raymond, Clarkson leads the team in puck possession (CORSI,) despite starting many of his shifts in the defensive zone.

"That's something I've always brought," said Clarkson, who has three assists, including a pair in the past two games. "In my career, I've always been known to be a guy that down low is hard to play against, that's always in the blue paint, winning battles down low, finishing checks and driving the other team crazy."

An admitted adjustment early on, Clarkson has been employed in a primarily defensive role so far, matched up against opposing top lines more often than not. He's held his own in such duties – on the ice for just four goals against. Never was his effectiveness in this capacity more pronounced than his second game of the year. Playing alongside Raymond and Dave Bolland, Clarkson helped keep Sidney Crosby off the scoresheet for just the second time all season (to that point.)

"The whole game, I was trying to hit Sid or trying to hit Malkin every shift because, if those guys are a little bit hesitant that you might do something, all of sudden maybe they're looking over their shoulder and not as effective," he said. "I always try to play that same way."

A Cup finalist with the Devils in 2012, Clarkson's veteran credentials have also held sway among his more youthful teammates – all but a handful are younger than his 29 years. Nearly toppling the veteran Bruins in the playoffs last May, the Leafs looked to Clarkson and Bolland for aid in the leadership department this past summer.

"He's one of those guys you can look at to be a constant out there," James Reimer told the Leaf Report. "He's just a good leader and he's a good pro. And a young team, that's what a lot of the time we need. You need those people that you can look up to."

Reimer points the manner in which Clarkson has handled the early string of misfires offensively.

"He's not getting rattled, not breaking his stick, not swearing up and down," said the 25-year-old netminder. "He just comes to work every day."

Several factors have worked to hold Clarkson in check offensively, luck and role most prominently among them.

A sign of his unluckiness to date: the Leafs boast an even-strength shooting percentage of a paltry 2.6 per cent when Clarkson's been on the ice this season, lowest on the team (with a minimum of 10 games played.) The several opportunities he has had, including a jam play opposite Jhonas Enroth on Saturday and a squeaker through the five-hole of Cory Schneider a week earlier, have fallen just shy of crossing the line.

In addition to bad luck, Clarkson's role has also changed from where it left off with the Devils. A first unit power-play contributor in Jersey, he is, at best, a second unit option in Toronto – stuck behind the skillful likes of van Riemsdyk, Raymond, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, and Tyler Bozak when healthy.

Clarkson, who totaled 14 power-play goals and 24 power-play points the past two seasons, has averaged 1:50 per game on the man advantage thus far, down from the nightly 3:33 he garnered with the Devils last season.

Not helping his cause offensively either is the limited amount of even-strength shifts he's started in the offensive zone – slightly above 17 per cent, lowest on the team – nor the amount he's shot the puck to date; just two per game, down considerably from the past two seasons.

"We think that David Clarkson has got a lot to offer to our hockey club and he's had his fair share of chances," said coach Randy Carlyle. "He's a little bit snake-bitten, but if he continues to go to the net the way he's been going and we continue to drive that middle lane and get pucks directed around him he'll score some goals for us. We believe that."

With career-highs of 30 goals and 46 points, the production is unlikely to ever match the annual $5.2 million pay grade, but rightly or wrongly, that's not why the Leafs signed Clarkson in the first place.

"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 said on July 5.

Clarkson says the early drought may have bothered him as a younger player, what with the now daily barrage of questions and pressure to contribute offensively, but with age, experience and a family, he appears neither frustrated nor agitated. He knows his poor luck is bound to change, also understanding the manner in which he can affect the game otherwise. 

"There's so much that he brings to this team," Reimer said. “When he starts scoring, honestly it'll just be a bonus."