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Clarkson aims to bring grit, goals to Maple Leafs' lineup

Toronto Maple Leaf David Clarkson wheels around the Senators net during the second period of the preseason game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators at the ACC in Toronto on Sept. 24, 2013.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

David Clarkson says not making his debut as a Toronto Maple Leaf until the season is almost one-eighth old feels just like you think it would, although seeing his new team go 7-3 made it a little easier.

"It felt long," the Leaf winger said Wednesday after the team concluded an impromptu soccer game in the place of an on-ice practice. "But when the team is winning it makes it [feel] shorter. I'm excited for Friday night."

Clarkson has now officially served his 10-game NHL suspension for leaving the players' bench to join an altercation on the ice during a preseason game. He will finally get to play his first game for his hometown team on Friday night in Columbus against the Blue Jackets after leaving the New Jersey Devils in the summer as a free agent to sign a seven-year, $36.75-million contract with the Leafs.

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That contract may have played a role in Clarkson's suspension, since many players who sign such huge deals feel enormous self-imposed pressure to immediately be a difference on their new teams. Clarkson, 29, admitted he acted with "my heart not my head" when he jumped on the ice after Buffalo Sabres enforcer challenged Leaf scorer Phil Kessel but wasn't ready to say he wouldn't do it again.

"That's a tough question," he said. "Different situations call for different measures. I've been part of things that have gone differently, gone the other way.

"I think you learn from things. I made a decision with my heart not my head. At the same time, I try to play with my heart on my sleeve and play that same way all the time."

But Clarkson promises he will try to avoid free-agent syndrome Friday night and not try to be all things to all fans. He says he will stick to what got him that contract, the ability to play a tough game in the corners and along the boards and contribute some scoring, like the 45 goals in 128 games he scored for the Devils in the last two seasons.

"I've got to just come in and take it step-by-step but play the way I was brought here to do," he said. "Go on the net, put the puck on the net, be physical, good in my own zone, do all those things. I'm just going to come out and play the way I have my whole career."

If you want to count soccer as a first step back for Clarkson, then things did not get off to a good start. The Leaf coaches decided to send their charges to the soccer pitch after the Anaheim Ducks' practice at the MasterCard Centre had to be switched to the Leafs' practice rink because of a broken pane of glass. Clarkson did not manage to score a goal, perhaps because Leaf enforcer Colton Orr turned out to be a pretty good soccer goalie.

"I didn't score any goals or anything, so it was a little disappointing," Clarkson said. "[Tyler] Bozak was pretty good; [James] Reimer was pretty good too."

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But Clarkson wasn't ready to issue any negative reviews about his teammates' ability to play the "beautiful game."

"I don't know, I don't want to say any names," he said.

He was also circumspect about just where he will be playing Friday night. At this point, it looks like it will be either on the right side of centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Joffrey Lupul on the second line, or with Dave Bolland on the third line with Jay McClement moving up from fourth-line centre once again to the left wing. Josh Leivo was sent down to the Leafs' farm team to make room on the roster for Clarkson.

"That's up to the coaching staff," he said. "You're just a piece to a puzzle. When you come to a team it's all about winning and when you're winning that's all that matters."

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