Go ahead Toronto Maple Leafs fans, raise your hands.
Whomever in your ranks heard of free-agent acquisition David Clarkson’s suspension a few weeks back and thought, “No sweat, we’ll just go ahead and share the Eastern Conference lead until he gets back,” certainly deserves to be called out for recognition.
More than likely, though, the reaction to the punishment was quite different indeed.
After all, to a franchise with precisely one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons and exactly one series win since 2002, rampant optimism doesn’t always come easy.
But as it turned out, that’s exactly what the long-moribund Maple Leafs warranted.
Instead of hovering at or near the .500 mark as their seven-year, $36.75 million signee cooled his heels in the press box, Toronto got off to a far better regular-season start—7-3 record, first place in the Atlantic Division, tied for first in the conference—than most forecasters anticipated.
And when Clarkson does take the ice for his Maple Leafs debut on Friday night in Columbus, he’ll do so with a collection of forwards who’ve proven both sturdy and prolific in his absence.
Toronto is fifth in the league in team scoring (3.3 goals per game) and second in power-play efficiency (28.2 percent), led by first-line right wing Phil Kessel (five goals, six assists) and second-liner Joffrey Lupul (six goals, four assists).
Lupul played on the left side with center Nazem Kadri and Clarkson during training camp, but Clarkson was skating on a line with center Dave Bolland and left winger Mason Raymond during a Thursday practice. Twenty-year-old Josh Leivo had skated with Bolland and Raymond during the veteran’s exile, but he was sent to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies to make room.
Lupul had played on the right side along with Kadri in the opening 10 games and could stay in that spot or go back to the left side, where he played while recording 11 goals and seven assists in just 16 games last season, much of which was lost to a broken right forearm.
Whether he lines up alongside Raymond and Bolland or Lupul and Kadri, Clarkson is expected to use his 6’1”, 200-pound frame to provide added strength down low that’ll either yield points on his ledger—he scored 30 goals in 80 games with New Jersey in 2011-12 and 15 goals in 48 games with the Devils last season—or free up space for his linemates to work in.
He’s an asset on the forecheck, is difficult to move once he positions himself in front of the net, isn’t afraid to speak up in the locker room and should have some extra motivation to finally appear in the uniform of the team he grew up watching as a native of Etobicoke, a formerly independent municipality which now comprises the western end of Toronto.
“It will be a huge honour,” Clarkson said. “I grew up a Leaf fan. I’m from the city. Any time a kid who dreams about wearing that sweater and then gets a chance to wear it, it’s pretty special. But I’ve played in this league long enough that it’s just another game. It’s not like it’s new to me. Just go out there and do what’s made me successful in my career.”