COLUMBUS, Ohio – The first thing you need to understand about David Clarkson is that he wasn’t always completely certain he wanted a night like this one.
Yes, he grew up in the shadows of the CN Tower and, yes, he was a massive Maple Leafs fan as a child – two facts that make it easy to forget just how stressful the days before free agency were for him. But the truth of the matter is that his heart and his mind were at odds with one another in the face of a life-changing choice back on July 5.
There had been visits to Edmonton and Ottawa in addition to the one with his hometown team and that brought on some mixed emotions.
"It was probably the hardest decision I ever made," Clarkson told sportsnet.ca recently of signing in Toronto.
And while it was an "honour" for him to finally pull on a Leafs sweater and make his long-awaited debut at Nationwide Arena on Friday night, it was really only the start of a long marriage that carries a fair bit of uncertainty for both the player and team.
Clarkson is trying to step lightly right now. Asked about his performance against the Blue Jackets after serving a 10-game suspension to start the year, he talked about feeling energetic on the forecheck before adding "I don’t know what the coach will tell you."
His instincts were bang-on because just minutes earlier Randy Carlyle had offered reporters a tepid review of No. 71’s opening night.
"I think he looked rusty," Carlyle said. "The one thing you know is he’s going to try, he’s going to work. The other things – as far as the stick-handling and the turnovers and stuff – you’ve got to give the guy some slack. He hasn’t played any games this year, you know?
"Everybody else has got 10 games ahead of him."
How things proceed from here should be fascinating. Armed with a seven-year contract worth $36.75 million, Clarkson has more security with the Leafs than everyone but Phil Kessel. However, he’s also still searching for his place in the locker-room and more than a little unsure about where he stands with the coaching staff.
Quietly, the team had some concerns about Clarkson’s conditioning in training camp – something that was no doubt worked out of him during all of the extra skating he was put through over the last few weeks.
On Friday morning, Clarkson joked that he learned to dread the sound of Carlyle’s whistle to end practice while he was serving his suspension.
"You know you’ve got another half hour left of skating," he said.
He’s also jumping in at a tumultuous time for the team. Despite a 7-4-0 record to start the season, the Leafs seem to be reeling – as evidenced by the amount of discontent expressed after another sluggish start in Columbus.
"Every game we come out and we get outshot 16-3 in the first period (before) we start to play a little bit better," winger James van Riemsdyk said. "Usually when you do that you don’t leave yourself much breathing room to find ways to win games."
Goalie Jonathan Bernier was even blunter after facing in excess of 30 shots yet again. "I don’t think we brought our effort again tonight," he said.
If there’s one thing Clarkson is known for, it’s effort.
He showed some positive signs in his Leafs debut while playing alongside David Bolland and Jay McClement in the early going. That unit was able to grind away in the offensive zone and cycle the puck, something that has been noticeably absent from the team’s game to this point in the year.
Clarkson is the type of player who seldom, if ever, does things the pretty way – and that’s why the Leafs wanted him. While he will no doubt end up getting criticized for making in excess of $5 million and putting up modest offensive numbers, team management has been consistent in saying that he doesn’t need to be a major point producer to be successful.
They entered the summer looking for a reliable winger and expected to overpay in free agency. Clarkson was arguably the biggest name on the market.
The 29-year-old from Mimico sincerely struggled with the decision about where to take his talents.
"When free agency hit, I didn’t just think ‘OK, I’m going to the Leafs,"’ he said. "There were teams that were out there that offered more (money). But I just got this feeling in my gut. I think if I didn’t give myself the chance to play for that team that I grew up wearing that jersey I’d have regrets.
"Now I’ve got to go out there and it’s up to me to do the work."
This will be the difficult part.
After spending eight years in the New Jersey Devils organization, where he originally signed as undrafted free agent, Clarkson had grown used to one way of life. Times have certainly changed.
The next stage of his career has arrived and it’s going to take some time to get comfortable.