Even the most optimistic Leafs fans weren’t expecting David Clarkson to be great throughout the entirety of his seven year deal, but this is just getting crazy now.
By again going pointless last night, the big free agent signing has now stretched his pointless streak to seven games. If you look even further back, he has only three points in his last 21. Depth players Trevor Smith, Paul Ranger and rookie Morgan Rielly all have more points than him (Ranger’s played one more game than Clarkson and Rielly’s played four more; Smith has played ten less).
He doesn’t play on the penalty kill, he doesn’t play on the power play, he isn’t in the top six, and he hasn’t played over 15 minutes in a game since seven games ago against the Buffalo Sabres.
“It’s been catch up all year,” Clarkson told Sportsnet. “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.”
He’s on pace for 16 points over 69 games this year and while his shooting percentage should stand to increase (it’s under 5%), it’s troubling to see that he’s on pace for only 134 shots on net over the prorated 69 games versus the 180 shots on net he took in 48 games last year. The biggest problem as I see it, though, is that he simply hasn’t been an impact player; he’s been a run of the mill grinder only playing in even strength situations for quite some time now.
Take the game against Washington last week. That was the kind of game that would have been labelled as a “David Clarkson” type of game in the summer. There were two big fights in which the players went toe-to-toe throwing bombs, Kadri probably threw hit of the year for the Leafs, and Clarkson — while he did have a few nice cycle shifts — really wasn’t a factor. John Erskine went after Dion Phaneuf with Clarkson on the ice and Clarkson didn’t get involved one way or the other to stop it. On the game winning goal, Clarkson got the penalty (I thought it was a weakish call), but the more troubling thing was how nonchalant he came out of the box. When he came out of the box he was adjusting his elbow pad versus hustling to get back into the play, and had he been a step a faster he would have been able to knock the puck off an unsuspecting Ovechkin, who had it on the point before he passed it far side leading to the pass in the slot for the game winner. That was the kind of hustle play Clarkson was touted to make, and that was the kind of game Clarkson was supposed to thrive in.
The Leafs did everything they could to keep the expectations reasonable for Clarkson. Throughout training camp all Carlyle said was that Clarkson simply has to play his game, while Leafs management went on a tour-du-Clarkson on the radio saying he simply has to be a 15-20 goal scorer and do all the little things that make him successful. But while we all know what Leafs management was and is trying to do –and nobody can blame them for it– this isn’t enough for a guy making $5.25M/year.
Clarkson has been and is solid defensively because he’s particularly good at chipping pucks out, and he can cycle down low in the offensive zone helping to eliminate defensive zone time altogether. He’ll go the net and get dirty, and he’s actually done a reasonable job defensively in his shutdown role while playing with an in-over-his-head Jay McClement (and that can’t be stated enough- he is in over his head). But these are things any team can find for quite a cheap price. I mean, Lee Stempniak was giving the Leafs this kind of play for quite some time (before anyone says anything – yes, he did play on a shutdown line. It was with Nik Kulemin and Wayne Primeau and they were pretty good. He also played the point on the power play while doing it).
Did Clarkson buy into his own hype and do nothing all summer? Did he enjoy his big contract and being on the cover of The Hockey News, forgetting in the process what got him here? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: Next year the Leafs will be spending a combined $22.75M between Kessel, JVR, Lupul and Clarkson. Unless they are going to move one, they need to find a way to make these four guys work. Whether that means simply playing Clarkson with Lupul and keeping JVR and Kessel together, or if it means splitting up JVR and Kessel and maybe playing Lupul on the top line with Kessel and moving JVR down to play with Clarkson (or heck even Clarkson on L1 and JVR and Lupul on L2), they need to make it work. The elephant in the room in this scenario is that in order to make it work they probably have to get away from having a complete shutdown line. They eat up a lot of ice time, and you can’t hope to be competitive over the long haul if you have your top line making nearly $16.5M, your third line making over $10M, and a second line of grinders playing a shutdown role. You also don’t pay a winger $5.25M to be a shutdown guy unless he is the best shutdown winger of all-time and pretty well never gets scored on. Clarkson’s good in this role, but he’s not that good.
David Clarkson beat the odds making it this far in the NHL considering he’s not a particularly skilled, fast, or big player, and he went undrafted, but not only did he fight his way into the league he managed to move all the way up to being a top six forward on a Stanley Cup Finals team. Even with all that, though, his biggest challenge will be living up to the massive contract he signed with his favourite team growing up. So far he’s off to a bad start, but Clarkson has made a habit of beating the odds.
- Here’s the answer to my own question from last week about the top two defensemen on each team (based solely on TOI) and whether they play together at all or not: Fowler and Beauchmin don’t for Anaheim, Jack Johnson and Wisniewski don’t for Columbus (11 second difference in TOI between Wisniewski and Tyutin, who does play with Johnson), Goligoski and Dillon do not for Dallas, neither do Ference or Petry in Edmonton, Doughty and Voynov in LA, Markov and Subban in Montreal, Zidlicky and Greene in NJ, Yandle and OEL in Phoenix, Boyle and Braun in San Jose, Hamhuis and Bieska in Vancouver, and Carlson and Green in Washington. It was also tough to get a read on Calgary with Giordano and Wideman, and Pittsburgh with Letang and Martin, due to their injuries. Can’t really get a feel for if Wideman and Giordano playing together because they’ve both been injured. So 11 teams don’t, and another two probably don’t but it’s tough to confirm due to injuries. In other words, the Leafs aren’t all that strange for not playing their top two TOI defensemen together (although most of those top two guys at least play together on the power play or even penalty kill).
- One thing people have wondered for the last little while is why Phaneuf is going downhill at advancing the puck up ice and being more of a threat offensively on 5v5 play in general. One little thing is that Phaneuf has almost altogether stopped giving his D partner an outlet on breakouts. All too often Carl Gunnarsson (or whoever he’s playing with), will take the puck behind the net and Phaneuf will simply stand in front of the net not giving his partner a passing option. That makes it very easy for one forward to chase Phaneuf’s partner to a particular side of the ice where another forward will be waiting for him and strip it off of him. Against Washington, Gardiner took the puck behind the net and Phaneuf stood in front, as Gardiner was chased he took the puck to the right side of the zone. There was another Caps forwards there waiting for him so he reversed it behind the net. Since Phaneuf was still standing in front, he didn’t get it, the puck went all the way around the boards, and the third Caps forwards picked it up and they hemmed the Leafs in their zone to follow. It’s a little thing, but it can be a big thing. Other Leafs defensemen don’t do this.
- One lasting image from the Wilson era for me was Jonas Gustavsson getting knocked down in a blowout against Tampa Bay — the Leafs were blowing out Tampa Bay — behind the Leafs net by Ryan Malone and no one even batted an eye (I believe Orr was even on the ice for it). Against Carolina, Reimer got knocked down by Jordan Staal and nobody even batted an eye. Here’s a picture to prove it:
This picture pretty much sums up last night’s Leafs’ performance. pic.twitter.com/zO2ZyAmuWn
— Jason Brough (@JasonPHT) January 10, 2014
When Wilson got fired and things turned around it was all about how Carlyle made this team tougher, how they were leading the league in hits and fights, how nobody messed with them, etc. But they are back to being as soft as they have ever been.
- New Jersey didn’t even dress Cam Janssen against them last night.
- Phil Kessel’s next shift after scoring the go ahead goal against Washington featured two separate back-checks to breakup three on two rushes. Kessel’s line has been great the last few games and he’s doing what he can to try and snap the team out of this funk. If things continue to go south the fingers will naturally point at Kessel because of his salary, but he’s far from the problem.
- Kadri played well against Washington and it was nice to see as a sort of bounce back game for him. He made an excellent play to draw a defender in and drop the puck to Lupul, who had a clear shot and got robbed in the third period. He also had a massive hit trying to change the game around. A lot of people are growing tired of Kadri and want him traded — at least that’s the sense I’m getting — but something just doesn’t feel right about the thought of trading this guy. The 47 points he’s on pace for is far from what people were hoping for, but this is truly his first full season in the NHL and he’s being asked to play as a 2C where he is carrying quite a bit of responsibility (Lupul and Raymond aren’t exactly defensive studs). Don’t give up on this guy Leafs fans, he’s only turning 24 this year and the best is yet to come.
- Another thing being forgotten is that this is only Jake Gardiner’s second full season in the NHL and he has a lot of maturing to do as well. These are two kids that are really only getting started in their NHL journeys and have a lot of room for growth.
- There are currently four forwards in the entire NHL that average over 16 minutes per game, have played over 20 games, and are in the single digits in points. They are (in order of TOI): Brooks Laich, Jay McClement, David Clarkson and Tomas Kopecky.
- Peter Holland had 9 points in the 16 games that he played over 10 minutes in. The right move was to promote Holland to 3C and push McClement down to 4C. There is nothing written that says you have to keep your lines the same throughout the game. They could have easily played Holland in the 3C hole and moved McClement up to protect potential leads if need be. As it stands, the Leafs are in the bottom half of goals this year — they don’t score at will anymore — and they need all the offense they can get.
- It feels necessary to note, though, that Jay McClement is a solid fourth line center and penalty killer. No hockey player is going to tell his coach to play him less, and it’s certainly not his fault he’s being played as much as he is in such an important role. The only reason I point this out is because there seems to be a lot of vitriol being directed his way for the ice time he’s receiving and where he’s being played, but you can’t blame him. Here are two examples why he can’t play in the top nine, both from the Jersey game:
On one play he took a pass in the neutral zone and skated it up ice, where Jersey stood him up at the blue line. He tried to make a play to gain the line and move it to one of his wingers, but in the process of stick-handling he simply lost the puck and Jersey turned it up and went down on a 3 on 2.
Later in overtime, McClement was on the ice and the Leafs were in Jersey’s zone, but Jersey was able to get the puck out because he lost a battle to Andy Greene. Why is this significant? Andy Greene didn’t have his stick.
- So far Bernier has played over 50 minutes in 28 games, while Reimer has played 15. The sample sizes are incredibly small but Bernier has faced 35.3 shots per game, while Reimer has faced 36.9. Is that enough of a difference to tout Bernier’s rebound control and puck handling over Reimer? In fairness to the Leafs, when I talked to Scott Gordon in the summer he didn’t really seem to think that Bernier’s puck handling would make much of a difference for them. All he said was that it can be a help if the guy moving the puck makes good decisions.
- When Ron Wilson was here and Cody Franson was acquired, Franson made the mistake of opening his mouth in training camp and talking about being a top four defenseman and major part of the team. Wilson promptly sat him and I don’t think ever got over it (Franson actually noted this training camp that he’d never make that mistake again). Similarly, Reimer opened his mouth after being yanked against Detroit after the first and has kind of paid the price since. Both situations just have the same feeling to them, wherein a coach doesn’t like a player going to the media to air his problems. One thing you have to give Carlyle, unlike Wilson, is that he hasn’t made a habit of calling out players through the media.
- One interesting thing I’ve read this year is that Francois Allaire picks who starts in Colorado, not Patrick Roy. That’s interesting especially since Patrick Roy was in fact a goalie himself. Just something to think about when it comes to alternating between good goalies and who should make the call; there is no right or wrong way, that’s for sure.
- Two theories this summer that are quickly being put to rest: The Leafs goaltending would be good enough to save them from long dry spells (one I was at least optimistic for), and that Clarkson would score more because he was on a higher scoring team.
“Randy’s job is not in jeopardy. It’s the players who have to play better, and they know that. The biggest piece in all of this is the players, collectively. This is not a bad hockey team… This coaching staff led us to the playoffs last season. They did it. They supplied the belief, the coaching and the teaching, all the things you need to have happen. Switching coaches isn’t going to make our players play harder or prepare better. And I think this coach works his ass off.”
- GM Dave Nonis, defending his head coach Randy Carlyle.
I found the whole interview on The Star to be a little underwhelming to say the least. There seems to be this notion going around the Leafs organization that the coaching staff led the team to the playoffs last year, when I’d argue the single biggest reason they made it was the one thing they don’t coach: the goalie. They players do have to play better, there is no arguing with that, but many have wondered (and this has gone beyond the Barilkosphere and into the mainstream media now) whether this roster is being maximized with the line-up decisions that are being made. It’s not strange for a GM to come out and support his coach, but the answers were just strange. I mean, sure, Randy probably does his work ass off, but so does every other coach in the NHL.
“This game was, by far, the easiest game.”
“They’re probably pretty fortunate they got 2 pts & we feel a little bit robbed.”
- Canes backup goalie Anton Khoudobin after beating the Leafs, and Devils head coach Pete DeBoer after losing to them.
This is what other teams are saying after they play the Leafs.
“Sending Holland down was a management move. It was made clear to the coaching staff that if they weren’t going to use Holland then they were going to take him away from them.”
- Darren Dreger, clarifying the reasoning for sending down Peter Holland.
This was only a matter of time as far as I was concerned. The coaching staff was making Nonis look awful by playing Holland under ten minutes a night with a second round pick on the line. If there’s one thing anyone who has ever had a job before will tell you it is this – don’t ever make your boss look bad.
“We think that those two players are a glimpse of our future.”
- Randy Carlyle, on Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly.
If you’ve been paying attention, the Leafs have been continuously repeating this message. I’d still be surprised if either Gardiner or Kadri (Rielly’s going nowhere) were moved, not only because I think the Leafs wont move them for veterans but I also don’t think they’ll be able to fetch the like-age players Nonis would want to move these guys for (Are the Leafs going to get an O’Reilly or a Couturier for these guys? Probably not). The other big thing here is that Gardiner and Rielly aren’t just glimpses of the future, they are notable pieces of their present roster. Particularly Gardiner.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 - I think I’d simply run each goalie until he lost. Go back to the “win and you’re in” model, but when there is a favourable match-up for a certain goalie let him get in there regardless and try to get rolling. The Leafs best hope is still their goaltending and while they haven’t been bad, the team needs them to be lights-out to have a chance every night. That’s just the reality for this team.
2 – I know as much as I have said I’d like to see Clarkson with Kulemin (and I do like them together), I think I’d probably move him up to the Kadri line and see if he can get rolling. If Holland was centering Kulemin and Clarkson they would have some ability to produce offense, but with McClement there there’s just no chance. Moving Clarkson up would also allow Lupul to stay on the left side (where he’s better), allow Kulemin to move back to the right side (where he’s also better), and put Raymond back to his natural LW position on the third line. These guys have to find a way to get rolling and simply putting players back in their positions and where they were supposed to play might help the most.
3 - I think I don’t mind the defense as is with Gunnarsson playing with Phaneuf, Gleason with Franson and Gardiner with Rielly. Ultimately I still think Gardiner-Phaneuf would be best, but I just don’t see them doing that.
4 – I think the Leafs need to take a look at a team like Jersey — who have been very willing fighters over the years; line brawl versus the Rangers anyone? — wonder why they aren’t dressing their enforcer for a game in Toronto despite knowing Orr was in the line-up, and seriously consider why #28 is in their lineup. Unless Orr fights seven times in the next nine games, he won’t even match the 13 fights he put up last year in 44 games (he’s at 6 in 35 right now). He has one shot on net in his last 23 games, and if I’m being honest, he looks like a fighter on a two-year deal who wants no business in fighting during year one (that’s just my opinion and I don’t blame Orr if true). Any frequent reader of mine knows I love tough, physical, nasty hockey, but this is crazy.
5 – I think sending Holland down was the wrong move and he should be centering the third line while McClement goes back to his rightful place as the 4C. The second round pick doesn’t bother me one bit because Holland is easily worth more than that, but they need to play him and make it worth their while. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the shot counts were trending in the right direction the more Holland played, and I think they need him a lot more than they realize.