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Toronto Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson (71) reacts after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson (71) reacts after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)

Clarkson gets another chance to prove his worth to Maple Leafs Add to ...

It’s not a particularly fair stat to a single player, especially one on the third line, but it’s one that’s sticking with David Clarkson right now.

Prior to his latest comeback against the Florida Panthers, the Toronto Maple Leafs were 16-15-5, or playing at an 84-point pace, when Clarkson was in the lineup.

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But when he wasn’t available – which has been often, with two suspensions and a couple injuries – the Leafs were 14-6-1, or playing at a 113-point pace.

Those are really more numerical quirks than anything, the kind of stats that lead some to say Dave Bolland’s injury was the sole reason the Leafs went in the tank after a 10-4-0 October or that Tyler Bozak’s return was what sparked Toronto’s latest run.

Maybe there’s a tiny kernel of truth in there, but it hardly tells the story.

That said, if the Leafs have missed Clarkson as they’ve piled up all these points lately, it’s hard to see exactly how.

On Tuesday, Clarkson rejoined the lineup as part of the Leafs third unit with Mason Raymond and Jay McClement, desperately hoping yet again to reboot what’s been a nightmare first season since signing in Toronto for enormous money on the first day of free agency.

He entered the game with only three goals and eight points in 36 games, and while his production has been suppressed in part by the linemates he’s played with and situations he’s played in, it’s also fair to say he hasn’t come close to outplaying his direct competition for better minutes (namely Nikolai Kulemin or Raymond).

What Clarkson looks like so far, in Year 1 of a seven-year deal, is a really bad bet by GM Dave Nonis, a player who was a product of his linemates and a generous heaping of power-play time in his last two quasi-productive years in New Jersey.

Yes, his shooting percentage is down to less than half his career average, so you can argue he’s deserving of a few more goals than he’s got, but that’s also hardly encouraging given how much cap space he’ll be eating up.

No matter how high the cap goes, a $5.25-million annual hit isn’t going to be insignificant.

“It’s been a tough year,” Clarkson said of his injury-riddled season. “And that’s the question I’ve been asked the most: How are you feeling? Are you better?”

If there’s good news here, it’s that Clarkson had been playing better and looking more comfortable in his last few games before being sidelined with a nasty elbow injury in mid-January. Given the lack of production from Toronto’s depth players even as the Leafs have been red hot, anything he can bring to the third line will be a welcomed contribution.

But expectations are so low at this point that if Clarkson can become even the equivalent of a 30-point player over these final 25 games and chip in with 10 points, it’ll be a huge positive.

The tough part of it all is that he’ll likely need to be a lot more than that next season, especially if his spot under the cap costs Toronto a more well-rounded player like Kulemin or Raymond when those two become unrestricted free agents this summer.

And, with his 30th birthday coming up next month, it’s only going to get harder and harder for Clarkson to have that type of renaissance for the Leafs.

“I’m still going to try to stay positive,” Clarkson said. “I haven’t been healthy too much at all. But at the end of the day, everybody goes through it, and it’s how you come out at the end. I’m looking forward to coming out strong here.”

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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