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Siegel: Clarkson ready for long-awaited Leafs debut

Jonas Siegel
10/23/2013 4:40:16 PM
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TORONTO – David Clarkson paused to consider the query.

"It's a tough question," he said before carefully choosing his words.

Knowing the result of his actions, would the 29-year-old leap off the bench to defend a teammate if the situation were to arise once more?

"Different situations call for different measures, right," said Clarkson delicately on Wednesday afternoon, never quite answering the question directly. "I think you learn from things. And like I said [previously], I made a decision with my heart, not with my head but I try to play with my heart on my sleeve and play that same way all the time."

Shelved for his actions in defending Phil Kessel from Sabres tough guy John Scott on Sept. 22, Clarkson finally served the 10th and final game of his suspension Tuesday night and will make his much-anticipated Leafs debut in Columbus on Friday evening.

After nearly a month of waiting to debut in the sweater he grew up wearing, a month of lingering as an extra forward at practice, a month as an outside ingredient to his team's early season success, Clarkson can finally prepare to play in his first regular season game with the Leafs.

"It felt long," he said. "When the team's winning obviously it makes it shorter, but it felt like quite a while."

The Leafs managed to reel off seven wins (7-3-0) in his absence – in addition to regulars Nik Kulemin, Mark Fraser and Frazer McLaren, all due back soon – plugging holes with youth amid an admittedly uneven start that featured sturdy netminding, terrific special teams, and inconsistent performance in the remaining underlying areas.

Clarkson's brash presence will be a welcome addition.

He was the club's marquee offseason acquisition – inked a massive seven-year deal worth $36.75 million – a player Dave Nonis described as "great mix of skill and character and grit".

Once a 30-goal man, the Leafs are counting on Clarkson to offer an irritating physical presence in their top-9, leadership from a Stanley Cup Final appearance in New Jersey, and of course, something in the way of offence, though not necessarily 30 goals.

But in spite of the simmering expectations of his debut, additionally stoked by his return home and the weight of that sizeable contract, Clarkson understands he can't run around and earn it back all at once.

"That's one thing I can't do," he said. "It's easy when you've been suspended to try to come back in the lineup and try to overdo things. I've got to just come in and take it step-by-step, [do] what I was brought here to do; that's go around the net, put the puck in the net, be physical, [be] good in my own zone, do all those things, not try to do too much."

Though nothing has been declared yet by head coach Randy Carlyle, Clarkson would seem to be a fit alongside Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, the latter filling a roster void at right wing while Clarkson and Kulemin remained out.

Wherever he ends up, Clarkson will be a definite upgrade over the inexperienced youth he is set to replace, a strong bet to trigger improvement defensively and in the dirty areas down-low in the offensive zone.

To pass the time and remain fit during his first NHL suspension, Clarkson skated twice daily – both at practice and often with skating consultant Barb Underhill – also employing the services of strength coach Anthony Belza during off-ice workouts.

That and extra time with family. "My wife is probably ready to get me out of the house and back at the rink," he grinned.

Though he has not played since Sept. 27, Clarkson did not believe that rust would be a factor in his return to the Toronto lineup.
 
Ultimately, the experience is not one he'd like to endure again.

"At the end of the day it's different when you're in the National Hockey League and you're starting a new chapter of your career or your life and you're suspended," Clarkson concluded. "Luckily enough I'll be here for quite awhile and have a lot of home openers to play. But the big thing is the team was successful and I'm just coming in now fresh and feel great on the ice.

"I'm excited here for Friday night."

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