Monday Morning Armchair GM: Clarkson vs. MacArthur

Monday Morning Armchair GM: Clarkson vs. MacArthur

We reviewed Clarke MacArthur the other day here at MLHS. The feedback seemed rather divided on the question of whether to keep or not to keep the pending UFA. Meanwhile, there’s no doubting that David Clarkson’s name will only continue to remain attached to the Leafs in rumour circles as we approach free agency and the Toronto native remains without a contract past July 5.

With a glut of wing talent already, and Phil Kessel in need a contract extension, there’s no way Dave Nonis should re-sign MacArthur and then also go and sign David Clarkson. It’s not a smart allocation of dollars when depth wingers are the easiest assets to come by in the NHL.

Of course, things could play out in such a way where the Leafs lose out on the Clarkson “sweepstakes” (he re-signs or they are outbid or whatever) and then turn and try to bring back MacArthur. But as of today, with both options on the table, there is certainly merit in the question of MacArthur vs. Clarkson. And it’s a tough one.

Inconsistency

There’s very few players whose job is to produce points in the NHL who don’t fit the definition of a “streaky point producer.” After his breakout 2010-11 season, MacArthur’s production patterns over a 73 game season in 2011-12 weren’t anything out of the ordinary for a decent second line winger.

Last season MacArthur may have deserved the label, but so too did Clarkson.

MacArthur’s slumps included one 5 game pointless streak, one six game pointless streak, one nine game pointless streak in his past 40-game season. 14 of MacArthur’s 20 points came in a 17 game span (mostly spent with Kadri). That means he produced just 6 points in 23 games outside of that hot five-week stretch.

Clarkson was no less “streaky;” in fact, he was arguably more inconsistent. Clarkson opened the season with 15 points in 12 games, meaning he just put up 9 in his other 36. One key difference is that the Devils as a team struggled mightily in the goals department down the stretch, and Clarkson never did stop pounding out shots throughout the season en route to the 4th highest shot total in the National Hockey League.

Both produced at a .50 pont-per-game rate last season. MacArthur played eight less games. Clarkson scored 15 goals to MacArthur’s 8, MacArthur posted 12 assists to Clarkson’s 9. Clarkson took a resounding 118 more shots on goal.

Possession Players, and the Leafs‘ Possession Problems

Starting with his first (abbreviated) training camp as head coach, Randy Carlyle set about infusing defensive structure into the Leafs as his first order of business. Over the season we saw evidence of a system that covered up the Leafs positional weakness at D fairly effectively, and relied on a quick-strike offense going the other way. It was far from ideal from a possession standpoint, but the results indicate it worked. Carlyle implemented a collapsing defensive scheme designed to take away the key ice in the defensive zone, the team withstood a lot of shots from the perimeter that Reimer gobbled up with a high level of efficiency, and Carlyle relied on his team’s ability to produce higher quality scoring chances in less zone time than the other team thanks to their speed and skill up front.

Anybody who thinks this means Randy Carlyle doesn’t care about possession play is selling him short (and wasn’t listening to his interviews this season). Turning the Leafs into a better defensive team and a better possession team is the goal over his tenure here. While he made inroads in getting the Leafs more organized as a five man unit defensively, obviously him and Dave Nonis have a lot of work to do when it comes to the team’s possession play. Carlyle has always made it clear that he wants a team that can produce more offensive zone time. The shot differentials will start to look better for this team when they can successfully do so.

A big part of the solution will come by strengthening the team down the middle. But could replacing a player like MacArthur with a David Clarkson help diversify the Leaf attack for the better?

If the Leafs are to ever become a good possession team, they’ll need a few more forwards that can cycle the puck effectively, help them maintain offensive zone time and produce shots. I don’t want the Leafs to lose that speedy identity that turned some heads this season and almost/should’ve knocked out the Eastern Conference champs, but this could require adding the right size/skill package up front at the expense of a smaller, fleeter-of-foot finesse forward.

There is the statistical argument out there that MacArthur has always shown to be a good possession player. He has always had strong CORSI rates to go along with his basic stat line that indicates an underappreciated level of production over his past 3 seasons – 125 points in 195 games.

Clarkson’s advanced stats also look good, as good as any forward in the 2013 free agent class. If the Leafs want to tip the shot scale more in their favour, which should be a goal, the fourth-leading shot taker in the NHL is a pretty good place to start.

Now let’s run the two players through the eye test.

Perusing the debate that developed out of the Clarke MacArthur review, there appears to be a divergence in opinion when it comes to Mac’s possessional abilities and it seems to depend on whether or not advanced stats are being used as the barometer for what constitutes a good possession player.

Strictly relying on game-watching observation, I see a player in MacArthur who can go pretty quiet for spells while impacting the game very little in terms of the forecheck, defensive play and shot generation. Being first in on the forecheck or committing himself defensively are not fortes of Clarke MacArthur and his wavering intensity level can leave one asking at times, “what is it you do around here, Clarke?” When MacArthur is digging deep and keeping his legs moving shift to shift, he usually makes an impact.

I’ve seen much less of Clarkson, but from what I have seen he is a player who can forecheck and cycle the puck well, set up shop in front of the net, shoot the puck a ton and in general contribute to the game in a number of different ways even when he’s not scoring. He also has a pest quality to him, something the Leafs just lost in Leo Komarov. Maybe with Clarkson in the lineup – he fought 6 times last season – Carlyle will feel there’s less of a need for two enforcers as well.

The Leafs would be giving up some speed and playmaking skill in MacArthur for the net front presence, forechecking, cycling and physically aggressive attributes of David Clarkson. They would be gaining a top-5 shot generator from last season. I don’t think MacArthur is in Carlyle’s good graces and I’d bet he’s dying for a Clarkson type among his forward ranks. But what would the Leafs have to pay to get it done?

The risk

The team that signs Clarkson is very likely going to be overpaying him from a production standpoint. There’s no getting around that. If we’re being safe, he projects as a 20-25 goal guy who scores 40-45 points.

David Clarkson and Ryan Malone are good pair of comparables. In many seasons, both wingers produced more goals than assists. They’re not the most skilled players in the world, but both can finish in tight and play a power forward’s game of driving to the dirty areas to get their goals. They don’t help their linemates by distributing, but by opening up space and providing a net presence on a scoring line. If I were to guess, Clarkson will be getting a long term, $4.5 million AAV deal, just like what Ryan Malone received from Tampa Bay in the summer of 2008.

Malone is five years Clarkson’s elder and has managed to put six 20-goal seasons together (was on pace for 8 if not for injuries in 06-07 and 10-11) over his career. He was less of a late bloomer than Clarkson; Malone put up a 22-21-43 season in his rookie season as a 24 year old, meanwhile Clarkson didn’t break 20 goals until his 30 goal breakout season at age 27. Despite more or less producing according to what his earlier career indicated during the first three years of his current deal, it has been tough for Malone to shake the overpaid label. Recent injuries haven’t helped. I don’t get the sense Clarkson is going to lose his game any time soon like Malone may have at 33 (too soon to write him off after coming off injury and just playing 25 games), but I would certainly avoid committing to the type of term Malone received from Tampa (7 years). 4 years would be ideal (taking to him to age 33), five is pushing it but probably more realistic, and anything above starts getting pretty damn risky.

Clarke MacArthur, meanwhile, could be in line to receive as much as a million less per annum. That’s just speculation, but I don’t see MacArthur getting $4M without losing years on the term, and I think he might re-sign at around $3.5M with a medium-length deal.

What say you, MLHS? How much more are you willing to pay, and for how long, for a similar (or perhaps slightly worse) point producer who brings much-needed added dimensions and high-shot generation in David Clarkson?