As the Air Canada Centre treatment room begins to resemble a bustling marketplace, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be looking at one player in particular to ease their collective pain.
David Clarkson, signed as a free agent in the offseason for $36.75 million over 7 years, is yet to find a role among his new teammates. In 9 games, the Toronto native has precisely zero goals and two assists after returning from his 10-game suspension. Since his return Clarkson has been used all over the place as Randy Carlyle tries and fails to find a role for a player who looks a way off from the once 29-goal scorer the Leafs hoped they were signing.
Though premature to write off as a flop a player who stalled his own momentum by leaping over the boards to attack the Sabres’ John Scott, an act undoubtedly borne in part from a desire to make an instant impact and quickly repay the financial commitment the Leafs showed in signing him, his lack of productivity will be genuine concern to his club.
His struggles are certainly not through lack of effort. Clarkson’s performances thusfar have resembled those from his early seasons in New Jersey – a physical, gritty wrecking machine winning battles on the boards and finishing checks. But the brutal truth is that’s not what the Leafs paid the big bucks for. Until Clarkson can rediscover his form in front of the net, he will struggle to find the regular top-line and powerplay minutes that he undoubtedly craves.
With Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland now out of the lineup, Carlyle no longer has the luxury of trying to ease Clarkson back into form. Phil Kessel, an equally streaky scorer, is missing his brother-in-telepathy Bozak and will need the support that Clarkson can provide if the latter can find his touch. There’s no room for passengers anymore and the Leafs need an impact.
Clarkson, of course, is not the only big-money free agent wheezing his way through the early stages of the season. Both Stephen Weiss in Detroit and Ryan Clowe in New Jersey (signed on a mind-boggling deal of $24m over 5 years) simply cannot find the net. The stifling effects of a big contract are well-documented but the Leafs will need to shift their reliance from Marlie call-ups to highly paid forwards soon.
Perhaps Clarkson just needs one to bounce off the seat of his shorts to get himself going. At this point he is even being over shadowed by Marlies call-up Trevor Smith, a forward unencumbered by the lofty expectations of a monster contract who was a rare bright-spot in a flat performance Friday night. But call-ups can only get you so far and with so many players out of the lineup, GM Dave Nonis will be fixing a glare on his marquee signing until the fortunes of his prize asset change.