Leafs’ underachieving Clarkson focused for fall


David Clarkson was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nathan Horton. (Claus Andersen/Getty)

David Clarkson doesn’t need to be reminded, nor does he like to be.

Looking for a lay-up of a hockey column at virtually any point during the 2013-14 NHL season? Write that Clarkson — he of the head-jerking, seven-year, $36.75-million contract — had underachieved in his debut campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the hometown team in which he had rooted for as a boy in Mimico, Ont.

Encouraged by a playoff drought mercifully quenched and an off-season injection of local talent (Dave Bolland, too, hails from Mimico), more than a couple members of Leafs Nation didn’t need to see Clarkson skate a single shift to fall head over heels: He fights and scores! He might just be the Second Coming of Wendel Clark! Edmonton offered more, but he still chose us!

The hype was insurmountable, the shortcomings inevitable. To go into detail about the 60 games Clarkson and Leafs fans would rather Men in Black from their memory feels like piling on, but two statistics capture his season in a nutshell. Clarkson had more fights (nine) than goals (five), and more games missed due to suspension (12) than points scored (11).

So when you ask Clarkson about the disappointment of last season, he’s swift to change the subject. You can’t blame him for not wanting to settle into a discussion of his worst year as a professional hockey player.

“It’s not a secret, right? At the end of the season, I obviously wasn’t happy,” Clarkson says. “No season goes the same, so you have to find a way to figure things out.

“So I went back to work right away and have been training as hard as I ever have. That’s what you have to do. There’s no summer where you train less than the one before. You look at how things went and work from there.”

Clarkson saw a two-and-a-half fewer minutes on the ice per night compared to his last year in Jersey; the third-highest-paid Leaf was seeing the 17th-most ice time (15:06). More critical, that 2:30 was all lost power-play time. On New Jersey’s first unit, Clarkson led the Devils in power-play goals in 2012-13 with six. He had just one as a Leaf.

It was suggested to Clarkson that his 10-game suspension for coming off the bench during a pre-season brawl against the Buffalo Sabres might have had a lingering effect, that he may have suffered from trying to make up for lost time.

“It’s tough to go through that, when your first impression or start is that,” he says. “But that’s all behind me. Everything’s behind me, and I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.”

Although he has six more seasons to redeem himself, Clarkson’s windfall last July served as the cautionary tale in this summer’s free agency, but it’s hardly the crash-and-banging forward’s fault that he was offered a deal that vaulted him into a class of cap-hit-comparable players that includes James Neal, Ryan Kesler, Jamie Benn and Evander Kane. This summer Leafs GM Dave Nonis’s splashiest addition was Leo Komarov, who signed for four years and $11.8 million.

Clarkson is a big fan of the new courting period that now precedes free agency, which likely helped juice his bank account.

“For me and my wife, we were lucky enough that we had quite a few teams where we could go and visit,” Clarkson says. Having time to weigh options, he explains, now alleviates the stress of making a serious life change. “This is something me and my wife wanted together, and it’s a dream of mine. I grew up here. That was part of my decision.”

Now Clarkson’s kids are growing up in Toronto. Clarkson, wife Brittney and daughter McKinnley, age 3, welcomed a new addition to Leafs Nation this off-season: baby Colton (no relation to Orr). The best anecdote to a bad season was the increased family time.

“You’re able to be a dad a little bit. You get up with them. During the season it’s hard. We’re on the road a lot. It’s a demanding schedule,” he says. “The summertime is when you can be a little bit more of a dad, be around as much as you can and play with them every day. It’s been fun.”

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