His are some of the biggest skates any player could be charged with stepping into in this market.
They would belong to Wendel Clark, a former first-overall pick and captain, a heart-and-soul type who gave Toronto Maple Leafs fans something to cheer for in some of the NHL franchise’s bleakest days, scoring and fighting his way into their hockey hearts.
Now 46, and 13 years into retirement, Clark has become almost a mythical figure for a certain subset of Leafs fans, the ones who still pine for the type of unbridled, in-your-face game he played.
There’s been a vacancy in that department in Toronto for some time, too, which has only allowed those myths to fester and grow. While the likes of Darcy Tucker, Gary Roberts and Owen Nolan have filled the role of the skilled, gritty forward to varying degrees, it has essentially sat empty the past five years.
That’s the uncomfortable void David Clarkson will step into next season, carrying sky-high expectations after signing a seven-year, $36.75-million (U.S.) contract and doing double duty as the heir to the Clark throne and a local boy coming home.
For those who have been waiting, keeping things in perspective won’t be easy.
The newcomer was even asked Thursday if he planned to adopt Clark’s No. 17, just to complete the takeover.
“No, no, that’s not in the equation,” Clarkson said, standing next to his boyhood idol for a photo op after the two chipped in at the team’s hockey school. “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t live up to what he has done. To me, [wearing his jersey] was a childhood thing.”
Clarkson is a pretty remarkable story on his own, as he went undrafted throughout an unremarkable junior career and only caught on with the New Jersey Devils farm club at 21.
After two years of modest production and dropping the gloves, he graduated to a checker’s role in the NHL and spent the next four years chipping in an average of 12 hard-nosed goals a season.
Clarkson’s past two seasons have been by far his best, as skating in a second-line role alongside talented players such as Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac, he blossomed into an effective scorer with 45 goals in 128 games.
Part of his success has simply been his willingness to shoot the puck from anywhere and everywhere, as he hit the net 180 times last season, more than all but Alexander Ovechkin, Evander Kane and Zach Parise league-wide.
Put into a similar role with the Leafs – likely with Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri on the second line – should mean he can produce 20 to 25 goals and 45 to 50 points right away, and for as long as he remains healthy.
What he (and, really, almost anyone) will struggle to do is live up to his billing as the next Clark, who was a one-of-a-kind throwback and had already scored 187 goals by his 426th NHL game, more than double Clarkson’s modest career totals.
The rush of Leafs Nation to draw the comparison between the two has alarmed some of Clarkson’s former backers, as Devils fans have flooded the Internet with skepticism and concern in the wake of the free-agent signing last week.
“This is going to be a disaster,” wrote one such backer, Rob DeCotiis, on Twitter. “The Clark comparison isn’t fair to Clarkson whatsoever … [I will] hate to see him vilified when he misses expectations. D.C. is a great guy.”
Even Clark, who’s well aware of the pitfalls of playing in Toronto, appeared to catch onto that possibility Thursday, as he attempted to deflect a little of the comparison talk that inevitably arose when the team put the pair side-by-side for a media availability.
“You never want to put pressure on one guy,” the soft-spoken Clark said at one point. “It’s a team thing. If the team starts the way they finished the season, all the guys will do well.”
If they don’t, it may not be pretty.
So far, Clarkson’s return home has been a storybook one, a first week as a Leaf filled with being recognized on the street and looked up to by kids on the ice.
But come the fall, the bar will be raised much, much higher, and stepping in for a myth will involve a lot more than bringing a similar game – and name – to the rink each night.