There were concerns that the Toronto Maple Leafs might really struggle to begin the 2013-14 season in David Clarkson's absence, but that has not happened. While there have been some cracks in the Leafs' collective armour, they are atop the Eastern Conference standings, and things look pretty good from where they are standing.
Clarkson was one of the most highly sought free agents this past summer. At the time of the signing, back in July, Clarkson was quoted in a Canadian Press article as saying, "It's an honour to be here...I wore that jersey as a kid. I was a big Leafs fan when I was little so it'll be pretty special to put it on.
Leafs fans and management knew that they were acquiring a player who would play with passion and aggressiveness on a nightly basis. Clarkson had also displayed a good scoring touch in his last 82-game season (in which he played 80) in 2011-12. He scored 30 goals and added 16 assists.
What the Leafs were likely even more interested in was the fact that he had accumulated 138 penalty minutes that year. Additionally, Clarkson had posted some strong shot differential numbers over the past few seasons. In 2012-13, Clarkson earned a relative Corsi Number of 16.9.
That number is a good starting point in breaking down Clarkson's start in 2013-14. The caveat is, of course, that Clarkson has played only four games so far. However, his impact has certainly been felt in terms of the shot differentials and puck possession, at least when he's on the ice.
Clarkson has been exceptional in this area. He has played against some strong competition in a checking role on more than one night. In this role he has earned an eye-popping relative Corsi Number of 33.2. In other words, when he is on the ice, it is tilted heavily in favour of the Leafs.
Clarkson has contributed just one assist in his first four games, but that really doesn't matter. The Leafs have had no issues with goal scoring. They are scoring at an average of 3.36 goals per game and have the third-best power play in the league at 25.5 percent.
It is not to say that the Leafs will never need him to score, but Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri are producing more than enough scoring for the Leafs currently.
Clarkson has also had an immediate impact with his physical play. He has delivered 15 hits in 4 games. He is arguably the most skilled Leaf, who can also play a physical brand of hockey. He'll play a lot of minutes in Toronto, and that physical style will juxtapose well with the majority of top forwards who don't play a physical brand of hockey.
The former Devil gives head coach Randy Carlyle a lot more versatility. He can employ Clarkson and Bolland as a shutdown duo that will be very difficult to generate chances against.
If they are playing a particularly quick line, he can potentially use Mason Raymond with them. If he needs more size on that line, he can employ Jay McClement instead.
What will be David Clarkson's main contribution to the Leafs?
Clarkson also has enough offensive upside, along with good defensive instincts, that he can play second-line minutes at any time. If paired with Kadri for instance, he will create more space and time for the speedier and smaller player. He will also be responsible defensively and cover for any defensive lapses that may happen.
Finally, Clarkson should help ease some of the pressure on the Leafs defense and goaltenders. A player who plays with the puck in the other team's end is necessarily taking pressure off his defensemen and goaltender. He can't be on every line, but expect Clarkson's inspiring play to help the Leafs improve their shot differential over time as his minutes and role increases.
If the Leafs can improve their team shot differential, there is no telling how good they might be with the kind of goaltending they are getting from James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. David Clarkson is sure to play a key role in all of this as well.