TORONTO – On the July day that ink was put to paper on David Clarkson’s life-changing $36.75-million, seven-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, you would never have imagined a night like this one.
With his former team in town and the Maple Leafs badly in need of a victory, Clarkson was barely an afterthought on Randy Carlyle’s bench. In fact, he saw the ice for a grand total of 37 seconds in the final 11:20 of a 3-2 shootout victory over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday.
Clarkson also had to sit out large portions of a penalty-filled second period since he’s currently not part of Toronto’s specialty teams. Essentially, the Leafs big free-agent signing has been relegated to a role player in a matter of months. And while that has to be eating him up inside, Clarkson would never let you know it.
Instead, he’s tried to embrace the checking role that Carlyle has carved out for him in recent weeks. Although a smile rarely leaves his face, the 29-year-old is at a loss to explain a season that has included two suspensions, two injuries and very few of the positives he was anticipating when he chose Toronto from a long list of interested suitors over the summer.
"I have no idea what to say, but it’s been suspension, foot (injury), suspension … and then I had my elbow done," said Clarkson. "It’s been one of those roller-coaster rides where you just try to get in and do what you can. Am I happy with the way my season’s gone? No, I’m not. I’m not happy with it.
"At the end of the day, I’ve got to find a way to personally get back to things and do what I’m asked by the coaching staff."
As long as he continues to play alongside Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin, no one should expect any increased offensive output. Those three players have combined for just nine total goals this year and they’ve been drawing tough defensive assignments since being put together in a game on Dec. 19.
Even Carlyle acknowledged that the unit is offensively "starved" – something he’s willing to endure since it’s the closest thing to a shutdown trio he’s got. For now, it’ll have to do.
"Part of the issue is trying to fit players into roles," said Carlyle.
This was clearly not the role Clarkson envisioned for himself. He was a regular on New Jersey’s power play in recent years and generated about a third of his offensive production from those man-advantage situations. Initially, Carlyle tried to use Clarkson as more of a scorer, but he was eventually dropped down the pecking order when the points were slow to come.
Now he’s on pace for the lowest goal and point totals of his career. Clarkson hasn’t registered a point in the last seven games and can’t seem to buy a break – he was denied on a couple dangerous-looking wraparounds in Washington on Friday night and made a nice inside-out move in the third period of Sunday’s game before getting stopped by Cory Schneider. Soon after, he was basically bolted to the bench.
"I don’t think you’re ever happy when your team’s not doing well and things aren’t going your way," said Clarkson, who finished with 13:28 of ice time spread over 21 shifts. "I’m playing a very different role than I played in my last four years in Jersey. I’m sure you can see that. When you’re asked to do something, you want to be a piece of it and do it.
"You want to do your job to the best you can."
An area where he has earned some kudos is within the Leafs dressing room. As bone-headed as it was for him to jump off the bench in pre-season to join a fight, the fact that he was willing to take a 10-game suspension to stick up for Phil Kessel was applauded by his teammates.
"He comes on to stick up for the best player on our team and I think that shows leadership," said centre Tyler Bozak. "I think personally he’s done a great job here so far and he’s only going to get better."
But the view from inside Air Canada Centre isn’t shared by fans throughout the city - Clarkson is well aware of that. Looking back, he believes that missing the first three weeks of the season has been a major hurdle to overcome. The layoff was made especially difficult since those 10 games would have provided valuable time to get accustomed to new teammates and a new way of life.
"It’s been catch up all year," said Clarkson. "I haven’t been myself. I’m not happy with the way things have gone. …I’m a big believer in first impressions and mine is sitting in the press box up here while everyone gets 10 games in. Then you’re trying to catch up."
As bad as the early optics of his megadeal have been, there is still time to change the perception of it - he has six-plus years left on his contract to try and find some stable footing.
However, for that to happen Clarkson is going to have to earn more of Carlyle’s trust because as it stands right now, he’s hardly being put in a position to make a significant impact.
"It’s been a very tough year," said Clarkson. "But that’s part of sports. We’ve just got to be a pro about it and be ready to go every day.
"Not every year is going to be great, but you hope that it somehow evens out here and things start going back to the way they were."