When David Clarkson finally makes his debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, he says he will play only the way he is supposed to. There will be no running around trying to score a big goal or make the big hit.
“It’s easy when you’ve been suspended to come back in the lineup and try to overdo things,” he said Wednesday, after the Leafs prepared for Friday’s game in Columbus against the Blue Jackets with an impromptu soccer match.
“I’ve got to just come in and take it step-by-step, but play the way I was brought here to do: Go on the net, put the puck on the net, be physical, good in my own zone, do all those things, not try to do too much. I’m just going to come out and play the way I have my whole career.”
But that is precisely why Clarkson, 29, is playing his first game as a Maple Leaf 10 games into the 2013-14 NHL season. He succumbed to the syndrome most players do when they sign their first big free-agent contract: feeling the self-induced pressure of trying to live up to all those dollars.
There was surely some of that playing in his decision in that preseason game with the Buffalo Sabres, when Clarkson jumped over the boards to join an altercation on the ice, drawing an automatic 10-game suspension under NHL rules.
While it was a foolish move on Clarkson’s part, it was a manifestation, albeit an extreme one, of a malady common among players since they gained the right a couple of decades ago to auction themselves on the open market.
Since the free-agent market usually induces general managers to overpay, almost every year there is at least one foot soldier who strikes it rich. It is only human nature to then try to prove to your new fans, bosses and teammates you are worth all those millions of dollars. That means you are soon trying to be the 50-goal scorer you aren’t or looking to knock bodies all over the ice.
Not even GMs are immune to this. That’s why Phil Kessel became a Maple Leaf for two first-round picks and a second, not long after Brian Burke became the boss of “the Vatican” of hockey, as he put it. There was also Burke’s first big free-agent signing in the summer of 2009, defenceman Mike Komisarek.
With the Montreal Canadiens, Komisarek was a decent defenceman who was prone to the odd rash decision on the ice. But as long as he was in the second pairing or lower, Komisarek was a useful player.
Then, he became a free agent and Burke signed him to a five-year contract for a total of $22.5-million (U.S.), which was normally money paid to a No. 1 or No. 2 defenceman. Komisarek was also coming to a much weaker team and would have to play a bigger role anyway, which made matters worse.
Worst of all, the Leafs opened the 2009-10 season at home against the Habs. The Leafs coach of the day, Ron Wilson, expressed concern Komisarek would try to do too much against his former team but the defenceman solemnly promised he would stay within himself, to use the vernacular.
Well, not quite. Komisarek ran around trying to hit everything in a Canadiens sweater. He took five minor penalties and a fighting major. The Habs scored twice on two of those penalties and left with a 4-3 overtime win.
Komisarek’s career as a Maple Leaf never matched his contract, ending with a demotion to the AHL and then a buyout last summer.
This is not to say the same lies ahead for Clarkson. But it should serve as a cautionary tale.
After four seasons as a solid defensive forward for the New Jersey Devils, Clarkson bloomed in 2011-12 as a power forward with 30 goals, followed by 15 in 48 games last season, which brought him a seven-year, $36.75-million contract from the Leafs.
Now, he’s getting first-line money, he’s playing in his hometown and he has something to make up to his teammates and fans.
It’s a dangerous mix, but Clarkson says he will not lose sight of the fact his bread-and-butter is still as the guy who plays hard at both ends of the ice and can chip in 25 to 30 goals in a good year.
“I’m going to play the same way I have my whole career,” he said.
For the good of his team, he had better keep his promise.
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