After a season so far defined—unflatteringly—by his contract, David Clarkson has a chance to prove that he’s more than years and zeroes and production that falls well short of what $36.75 million should provide fans and a franchise.
He’s got 25 games and hopefully a playoff series or two to make year one of his “local-boy-makes-good” signing something other than a frustrating prelude to a deal that lingers around Leafs general manager Dave Nonis for years to come.
The Toronto Maple Leafs forward claims to be only marginally aware that he’s routinely had the adjective “bust” attached to him on social media, in regular media and anywhere else that four goals and five assists in 39 games seems a poor return for the $5.25 million he’ll earn this season and the next six after that.
“I don’t have social media,” he said Tuesday after practice at the Mastercard Centre in Toronto. “The odd time you get a buddy who calls you [to tell you about negative press], but I’m looking forward to the last  games. Fans have been great, the family has been happy and I’m happy to be a Toronto Maple Leaf.”
It’s hard to know what the perception of Clarkson would be if his season had been something other than a slow-motion train wreck of bad luck and strange happenstance to this point.
While a number of his teammates were commenting about how welcome the NHL’s 18-day Olympic break has been, giving them opportunities to recharge in advance of the 25-game sprint to the post-season, Clarkson wanted to play through it.
“I’ve had enough of a break this year,” he said.
His season started with a 10-game suspension for coming off the bench in the famous exhibition-game line brawl with the Buffalo Sabres and more recently being sidelined for three weeks after having surgery to remove the bursa sac on his left elbow, which was injured when he cut himself on a stanchion in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
He also missed another game after being hit in the foot with a puck and had a second suspension for two games, bringing the total number of missed starts to 21 for the season.
For a new player trying to live up to the expectations of a big contract signed to play with his hometown team, the timing of the break was less than ideal, especially since he was finally showing flashes of the form that made him a key contributor to the New Jersey Devils’ Stanley Cup run in 2012.
Settling in on the second line alongside Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, Clarkson had a goal and an assist as the trio got loads of ice time in two straight Leafs wins, part of a surge in which they had 11 wins in their past 14 games.
“Playing with those two we made a lot of good plays,” Clarkson said. “We were in the other team’s zone a lot, and it was the healthiest I’ve felt since coming back.”
Clarkson opted to keep things simple in his unwanted downtime. There was a brief getaway with his wife and young daughters, and then it was back to the gym and the ice so he could come into what head coach Randy Carlyle likened to a mini-training camp in peak form.
“The one thing about Clarkie is over the break he didn’t go away the way a lot of players did to find the sun,” said Carlyle. “He stayed here and worked out and maintained a high level of conditioning, and it shows.”
There is a school of thought that Clarkson wasn’t signed for his regular-season contributions anyway, although $36.75 million could reasonably be expected to get production closer to the career-high 30 goals he managed in 2011-12 than the career lows he’s heading for this season.
His reputation as a master battler along the boards suggests his best work could come in a muck-and-grind playoff series.
Fortunately for Clarkson with the post-season just seven weeks away, the intensity should be ramping up just as he believes he’s finding his game.
“This year, the way it’s gone for me, I used that break to find a way to get back to work and try to stay healthy,” he said. “I’ve had some bad bounces, but it’s how you come out of it and I’m going to try and finish this season as strong as I can. There’s no better time of the year to feel good.”