Maple Leafs fans have always had a strange relationship with the players on the team. Whether it’s failing to fully embrace a Hall of Fame star like Mats Sundin while falling in love with guys like Tie Domi, or developing a group-think mob-like mentality that eschews reality for the cathartic release of hating players who don’t really deserve it, like Larry Murphy, Brian McCabe or Dion Phaneuf, the fans of the team, while being perhaps amongst the most passionate in the sport, seem to always need a scapegoat.
Now the team currently sits in third place in their division with home ice advantage in the first round a distinct possibility. Since they are one of the youngest teams in the NHL, you would think that everyone would be enjoying the recent renaissance after years of futility.
Alas, part of the reason sports is so exciting is because it’s emotional and things don’t always have to make sense.
Enter David Clarkson.
Clarkson signed with the team this past July 1st for 36.75 million dollars, a seven year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.25 million. Though many, especially those who tend towards advanced stats, called the deal a massive overpay the day it was signed, I think most people were generally happy that for once the team with the highest ticket prices in the league came through during the free agent period with the best, or at least most expensive, player.
Despite the excitement surrounding the deal in some quarters, there were some very legitimate concerns about the contract, mostly to do with the length. Seven years for a 29 year old power forward? It seems excessive because players who play the highly physical game that David Clarkson does tend to trail off in their thirties a lot earlier than other kinds of players.
This however, does not, in my opinion, fully explain what is happening with David Clarkson and the Maple Leafs’ fans this year as they seem to generally hate the guy. I mean, pathological, intense, hate.
IT’S NOT YOUR MONEY!
I think it goes without saying that if Clarkson was a cheaper player, or one on a shorter contract, that the fans would have embraced him more than they have. Certainly he plays the style of game that has been popular with fans of the team in years past — see: Gary Roberts, Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Wendel Clark. None of those players, however, were a big ticket free agent signing. The way fans are treating Clarkson, it seems like they think they are personally going to have to pay for him.
I am not about to come out and say that David Clarkson has lived up to his contract this year or that he has even played all that well. He has clearly struggled, as his 4 goals and 6 assists in 43 games will attest, but I think that some perspective is needed before turning him into the next Brian McCabe.
First of all, I would have thought that his sticking up for Phil Kessel in the preseason (where he left the bench and received a ten game suspension for his troubles) would have earned him some fans. Despite it being monumentally stupid, it was in the heat of the game and a giant of a player was attacking his team’s star forward, and he clearly wanted to endear himself to his new coach and teammates.
Unfortunately, being suspended for nearly the whole first month of the season has had a disastrous effect on his time in Toronto so far, and I don’t think he has been cut enough slack for the results of that suspension. Whether you agree that it was a reasonable thing to do or not, it’s important to realize that regardless of how hard you practice or train, when you enter the season ten games late you are way behind other players in terms of fitness, timing and other psychical factors. Unless you are Mario Lemieux , you can’t simply enter the season late and expect to keep up.
So, Clarkson missed the first ten games. When he returned, the rest of the NHL was rounding into game shape and he was still in pre-season mode. It is reasonable to cut him some slack for this and when you also consider the pressures of the giant contract, coupled with him being a hometown player for a team that rarely has had one, not to mention the Clark comparisons, I think it’s really easy to understand, from both a physical and psychological standpoint, why he had trouble getting going. That’s not even mentioning the fact that he was still learning a new system, with new teammates and a new coach in a new city.
I also think if he had picked it up, say in December, then people wouldn’t have cared. But, you can’t expect patience from a fan based so starved from winning when their big expensive new toy has only produced 10 points more than 3/4 of the way through the season. So I understand the frustration. I just don’t think it’s fair.
Clarkson looked like he was starting to fit in at the beginning of December when he was suspended again for two games for a hit to the head on Vladimir Sobotka of the Blues. At some point between the suspension and the Christmas break, Clarkson injured his elbow. This was disgustingly shown on HBO’s 24/7, but he ended up missing only the January 7th game against the Islanders.
Clarkson, warrior that he is, returned after that game and kept trying to play through the pain, possibly due to the pressures of the contract and the market, only to have no choice but to go on the IR on January 17th.
He missed eight games with the injury, then returned for three games only to have the NHL go on the Olympic break.
Almost a month later, when play resumed, Clarkson again looked pretty good for a few games only to miss yet another game last Saturday with an injury.
All in all, Clarkson has appeared in 45 games this year, but the most consecutive games he has played in has been 22, a stretch in which he was still catching up from missing the first 10 games of the year due to his suspension in the pre-season. It is my opinion that a player with twice the skill of David Clarkson would have trouble finding his game had he had to go through this kind of bad-luck season, even if it wasn’t during the difficult transition to a new team.
I know I will be accused of making excuses. I feel, however, that as fans, we far too often forget that the players we cheer for are actual human beings, capable of mental and physical problems. Millions of dollars do not make you immune to the human condition, and besides, sometimes excuses are warranted.
Moving forward, I believe that David Clarkson will never live up to his contract. That is because that would require him to score between 20-30 goals every season, for the next six years, while providing physical play of an aggressive and difficult nature. That being said, I think it’s important to remember that hardly anyone lives up to their contract.
If Clarkson ever scores 20+ goals, and he will, he is worth the five million at least for that season. People also forget, I think, that the $5 million being paid to Clarkson isn’t the same as the $5 million being paid to Phil Kessel (his current contact that expires this season) on his last contact. That contract was signed in 2009 and there is inflation every year, which means that in a year or less (probably this July 1st) Clarkson’s salary won’t seem so high.
Once that happens, it will only be the length that is of concern. This is not a real concern, or at least it shouldn’t be. Hardly anyone plays until they are 37. Hardly anyone finishes a seven year contract on the same team. And, even if Clarkson stays with the Leafs, retires or gets injured, that is a problem for the future. Bad contacts have a way of working themselves out. After all, Mike Komisarek is off the books, isn’t he? And Robert Luongo was just traded.
The fact remains, length of contract is the one tool a GM has at his disposal to make a cap hit manageable and to convince a player to sign with his team. So, yeah, it may have been a high price to pay, and he may not really be worth that much, but regardless, he is a good player, the kind of power forward the Leafs desperately needed, and he can’t be any worse than he has been.
I say give him a chance. Let him win you over like the Clarks and Domis of the past have. Don’t write him off because he has suffered through one of the worst bad luck seasons a player can have. I promise you that you will see a different David Clarkson in the playoffs; I guarantee that he makes the Leafs tougher to play against and that he will eventually start chipping in on offense. Most of all, I beg of you, stop judging players based on their contracts. The depth Clarkson gives the Leafs at wing will pay off, whether it’s this season or next. He is one of the only veterans on one of the league’s youngest teams.
In conclusion, If Clarkson can help the Leafs win even one playoff series, his contract will have been worth it. Remember, it isn’t your money.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.