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Toronto Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson, centre, has been suspended for 10 games for leaving the bench to join a fight. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson, centre, has been suspended for 10 games for leaving the bench to join a fight. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Shoalts: Clarkson’s poor judgment puts Toronto in a tight spot Add to ...

The NHL regular season hasn’t even started yet and David Clarkson has managed to damage the playoff hopes of his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, mess up their salary-cap situation and jeopardize their chances of signing defenceman Cody Franson.

All this with one stupid decision.

Leafs general manager David Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle must be thrilled with their prize free-agent signing. Clarkson was officially suspended by the NHL for the first 10 games of the 2013-14 season on Monday.

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League rules call for an automatic 10 regular-season games for anyone who leaves the players’ bench or penalty box to join an altercation on the ice – as Clarkson did last Sunday during a preseason against the Buffalo Sabres.

Securing a playoff spot will be more difficult this season due to realignment, with 16 teams in the Eastern Conference chasing eight berths while eight of 14 teams in the Western Conference will make the postseason. The Leafs also have to worry about the Detroit Red Wings joining the Atlantic Division to make it even harder.

Now, the Leafs will be without a key player for almost one-eighth of the schedule (until Oct. 25). A quick start has always been imperative in landing a playoff spot, and Clarkson was supposed to bring the grit in the battles for the puck the Leafs need to boost their offence.

Two years ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets signed defenceman James Wisniewski to a big contract in the hope he would help them finally reach the playoffs. But he drew a suspension for the first eight games of the regular season for a head shot on another player. The Jackets went 1-7, and their playoff aspirations were dead by mid-October.

Granted, the Leafs are a much better team than the Blue Jackets in 2011, but losing Clarkson takes away what Nonis and Carlyle thought would be a key upgrade this season.

“We set out a plan for the first day of training camp,” Carlyle said after Leafs practice Monday. “Now, that plan has changed. You have to adjust things on the fly. You have to have plan A, B,C and D in the drawer. We’re at plan, I guess, B and C right now.”

Plan A was probably to have Clarkson skating on the second line with centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Joffrey Lupul. That job may now go to Mason Raymond, who was awarded with a contract Monday.

This, in turn, creates an opening on the third or fourth lines, which will now go in the short-term to someone management probably thought was previously undeserving. The beneficiary here appears to be centre Joe Colborne, 23, who was not distinguishing himself thus far. He was a first-round draft pick in 2008 (No. 16, Boston Bruins) but his slow development raised the possibility of the Leafs trading him or putting him on waivers by the end of camp.

The problems don’t end there, which is why Carlyle and the Leafs management team looked like they were hit by a load of bricks.

With restricted free-agent Franson demanding a one-year contract for around $3-million (U.S.), and less than $1-million under the $64.3-million salary cap remaining after Raymond’s one-year deal was signed, Nonis is in a tight spot.

The plan had been to sign Franson, who is at worst the Leafs’ second-best defenceman, and then create cap room by carrying as few as 21 players (two less than the NHL roster maximum). Now Clarkson will still take up a roster spot during his suspension, and Nonis has to add another player to replace him – a player who will eat up a good chunk of that tiny remaining cap space.

Nonis has to contemplate going the first 10 games of the season without Clarkson and Franson. Marvellous, eh?

What must be infuriating for the Leafs is this is so unnecessary. Clarkson, 29, is a seven-year veteran who should have known better. (Phoenix Coyotes forward Paul Bissonnette drew the same suspension last week for the same offence, if Clarkson had needed a reminder.)

For the second day in a row, the Leafs refused to make Clarkson available to explain himself, but you can bet he would offer the standard lame excuse: I wanted to save our star, Phil Kessel, from that oversized goon, John Scott.

But by the time Clarkson arrived, Scott was buried under two other Leafs. This left Clarkson tugging on Scott’s sweater.

For that, he’s gone for 10 games, out a few hundred thousand dollars in salary and has his team behind the eight-ball in the playoff race.

@dshoalts

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

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