Seven years and US$36.75 million set the price of expectations for David Clarkson.
When Clarkson signed with the Maple Leafs on the first day of free agency, he accepted the scrutiny that comes with that term and substantial price tag in arguably the NHL’s toughest market. The high standard of success he’ll be held to this season and in the coming years doesn’t bother him.
“I really don’t think about it, to be honest with you,” Clarkson said. “I’ve played the same way my whole life. I’ve played that style of hockey and it’s gotten me to where I am. All I’m going to do is go out every night, give everything I can. And am I going to be perfect? No, I’m going to make mistakes. But I’m going to play that same style of hockey that got me here.”
That’s the right mind-set for Clarkson, a one-time 30-goal scorer for the New Jersey Devils who will be counted on to score close to that in Toronto. But Philadelphia Flyers left-winger Scott Hartnell has been there, done that with a similar salary bump after a trade from the Nashville Predators and figures it will be an adjustment for Clarkson.
“It definitely is a little added pressure, I think,” Hartnell said Monday. “And going to Philadelphia, for myself, was obviously a way bigger market than Nashville was. You can say the same for Clarkson, going from the Devils where there’s not much media that I’ve noticed, and coming to Toronto where you take a sip of a beer and (it’s reported like) you’re drunk the night before the game.”
Clarkson maintained that he doesn’t read or watch anything about him that riles up the hype. But the local boy wasn’t blind to the difference between playing in New Jersey and Toronto.
“When he made the decision to come back to Toronto here, I think obviously the first thing he took into consideration was all the expectations here and media how it could be like to be a Leaf,” said younger brother Doug Clarkson, who’s in training camp with the Flyers. “I just said to him, they love that style that he plays and I know (coach Randy) Carlyle likes that style. He’s been the same since junior; I don’t really think he’s changed that much since he came into the league his first year.”
Listen to Carlyle and general manager Dave Nonis, and that’s what the Leafs want. Hartnell called Clarkson “basically the epitome of a power forward,” and his game is as much about crashing the net as it is putting the puck into it.
Counting $5.25 million against the salary cap this season certainly makes Clarkson a target if he doesn’t score 20-plus goals, and Carlyle knows it’s the job of the coaching staff to keep the 29-year-old winger from putting too much onus on himself.
“I think that there’s a trap at times when players do change teams and contracts become something notable, the first thing they try to do is change the way they play,” Carlyle said. “That’s one thing that we want to guard against that we want David Clarkson to play the way he’s capable of playing and (do) the things he normally does, not try to be anything more than what he’s been before.”
Clarkson has 97 goals and 73 assists in 426 NHL games and is hardly an offensive superstar. Carlyle pointed to some “intangibles” Clarkson brings beyond scoring.
“He’s a big body in front of the net,” Hartnell said. “He scored lots of goals against us, just being there causing havoc in front. He’s got a quick release, a guy that can hit and fight.”
On a team with Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, Clarkson won’t be leaned on to fight too often. But he’ll be expected to produce like he did in New Jersey.
Clarkson credited teammates for helping him to 30 goals and brushed off the weight of the pressure to perform.
“The pressure of everything, you put pressure on yourself as a player every day to do well,” he said. “You realize we’re lucky to be athletes, but at the end of the day you want to do well. I think if you put in the work in the summer and you play hard every night, the success comes.”
That kind of attitude is why Doug Clarkson isn’t worried about his brother trying to live up to expectations.
“He’s always been good with people and good around people,” Doug Clarkson said. “People have a lot of respect for him just because that’s the way he is. It doesn’t matter what the score is, if you’re losing a ton or what, he goes out there and plays hard.”
As long as the effort is there, David Clarkson isn’t worried about media members — “You guys don’t bug me, not at all,” he said. Clarkson is confident he’ll be able to deflect the attention.
“I’m just looking forward to what’s ahead, and pressure from media and fans I don’t feel at all because when I leave here I go home to my family and that’s all I do and that’s all that matters,” he said. “But I will go out there and play hard every night. That’s it.”