The Toronto Maple Leafs won their first game in a month on Saturday with a 5-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. During the win interim coach Peter Horachek did something that Randy Carlyle could never find it in himself to do, bench David Clarkson.
Scratching Clarkson Has Team Playing Better
The 30-year-old was made a healthy scratch on Saturday in favour of Trevor Smith and suffered the same fate Tuesday versus the New York Rangers. According to Horachek the move was not necessarily a punishment, but rather a move to try and encourage Clarkson to try and play better, something Clarkson understands.
David Clarkson believes he’s being scratched to send a message to the team.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 10, 2015
It is hard to say that the move to bench the veteran winger is why the team won, since they did lose Tuesday, but what is clear is it didn’t seem to hurt the team. The Maple Leafs had their strongest offensive performance since their last win back on January 5th when they defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 and followed it up with four in a 5-4 loss to the Rangers. In fact the Leafs had scored just five goals over their previous four games before Saturday.
Following the move and the success that followed it, the team decided that for the second time in a row that Clarkson would be a healthy scratch against the New York Rangers Tuesday. For Clarkson these two missed games are the first times since he joined the Maple Leafs last season that he has been made a healthy scratch.
However the move is just further proof that the team has fared well with Clarkson out of the lineup. Since last season the team is 16-7-1 without Clarkson. Meanwhile the team is 45-57-11 when he has dawned the blue and white.
Struggles Since Joining the Leafs
Ever since joining the Maple Leafs Clarkson has played some of the worst hockey of his career. Last year in 60 games with the Buds the Toronto native, had just five goals and 11 points and was a -14. This year he has upped his number, but they are still far from impressive. He has 10 goals and 15 points, those two totals combine for a measly 15 goals and 26 points and a -25 in 113 games.
These numbers have been incredibly degrading for fans, Clarkson, and especially management. The team signed the 6-foot-1, right winger in 2013 during the free agent frenzy, agreeing to a seven-year $36.75 million deal. The contract currently has him making $4.75 million this season, but would could be the most worrisome part of the deal is, that if he doesn’t get his game back to where the team would like it, they will be paying him $7 million during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 season. That would severely hinder the Leafs cap.
The team was hoping that when they signed him that he could be a physical presence upfront and hopefully put up the type of numbers he did during the 2011-12 season. Clarkson set a career high with 30 goals and 46 points that year, helping his New Jersey Devils reach the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Los Angeles Kings.
It would seem that the obvious move for the Leafs then would be to buyout Clarkson from his current contract during the off-season. Unfortunately, with the way the deal is structured, that would almost hurt the team more than anything. The deal is set up in such a way with bonuses that the team would be forced to deal with dead salary for years down the road.
Could Other Players Be Benched?
With the move supposedly being by the coaching staff to try and motivate the team, it will be interesting to see if that will bring scratches to other roster players. The team’s top goal-scorer Phil Kessel has been known for being a very streaky player during his career. Never uncommon for the winger to score in bunches or go games looking almost invisible on the ice. It would be interesting to see if Horachek will look to take similar measures that he has with Clarkson with other members of the Leafs roster.
Kessel though is looking to be playing a little better in recent games. He scored against the Oilers Saturday and has points in back to back games. He had 20 shots in the last five games so he is getting his chances. However, in the team’s win Saturday Kessel had just 14:31 of ice-time, his lowest total since December 6 against the Vancouver Canucks, a stretch of 29 games and Tuesday was a team-worst -4.
Clarkson has voiced his displeasure about being a healthy scratch and that is to be expected. No player likes to be scratched, but if the move is paying off offensively it would be hard for the team to mess with a system that is working. The Buds had been playing better defensively as of late, but struggled to regain, their once lethal, scoring touch.
There is no word yet on when Clarkson could return to the lineup, but with the team scoring in bunches lately he may not. The tea has nine goals in its last two games after having nine their previous six games. if goals will lead to wins then one would expect him to continue to sit. But moving forward the biggest issue now might be, whether winning games at this point of the season would hurt the team more heading into the entry draft this summer.
Craig is an intern at The Hockey News where he has written for both the website and the magazine. He is also a featured-blogger at http://www.hockeyforums.net/index.php/blog/46-its-a-canadian-game/. Craig has an Honours in Journalism from Wilfird Laurier University and is currently completing the Sports Journalism Program at Centennial College. Follow him on Twitter @Craig_Hagerman.