What Must David Clarkson Do to Earn Huge Contract with Toronto Maple Leafs?

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IDecember 27, 2013

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 19:  David Clarkson #71 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates during NHL game action against the Phoenix Coyotes December 19, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Graig Abel/Getty Images

David Clarkson has roughly the same cap hit as Toronto's high-scoring stars Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul ($5.25 million), but has just eight points in 27 games so far this season. What does Clarkson need to do to turn things around and provide the Leafs value for his seven year deal?

It won't be an easy task for Clarkson and the Leafs, that's for sure. He's 29 and locked down until he's 37 at $5.25 million per season. With the exception of the 2011-12 season, Clarkson has always been a checking line player, never topping 17 goals or 32 points.

Obviously, that isn't going to cut it. Even the league's best checking line player isn't going to have the opportunity to provide a team $5.25 million in value per season. In order to earn this contract, Clarkson will need to continue his evolution into a top-line, two-way, goal-scoring forward similar to his cap hit comparables.

To help determine exactly what that looks like, we'll use hockey analytics. First, we'll find out where the bar is set for Clarkson by identifying his cap-based peers. That is, we'll find out what kind of veteran forward the Leafs could have acquired with the exact same dollars.

For purposes of this study, we'll ignore the value Toronto could have achieved by investing in a different type of player, because there's very little that Clarkson can do about that.

Having established those rough expectations, the next step is to pop open the analytic hood and see what value Clarkson is providing today. That will help determine how big the gap is. Essentially, we'll know just how much better Clarkson needs to be to earn his big contract.

In the end, we'll see that Clarkson can earn that huge contract, but he'll have to be given more opportunity to contribute, and he'll have to play no lower than at the highest level he's ever played. Oh yeah, and he'll need to keep it up for seven years.

What Does $5.25 Million Buy?

Teams have to take risks in order to compete, and perhaps no offseason free-agent signing was riskier than when Toronto offered $36.75 million over seven seasons for New Jersey's hard-hitting veteran, David Clarkson.

It may have seemed excessive for a checking line player, but Clarkson had recently been evolving into a durable, two-way, top-six power forward, alongside Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac. He even bagged 30 goals in 2011-12.

The Maple Leafs were nevertheless taking quite a gamble, as $5.25 million per year is normally enough to land an established two-way top-six forward, not merely an aspiring one. A quick look at a list of forwards around the same age and with the most similar cap hits reveals that Clarkson's career totals are barely half of those of his peer group.

Clarkson's Comparables
AgePlayerTermCap HitGPGAPTS
Cap Geek and NHL.com

The 82-game, single season average of Clarkson's peers is about 24 goals and 32 assists for 56 points. And half of them have 30-goal seasons of their own. Jeff Carter even has three of them.

The comparison is less unkind to Clarkson when only the period from 2011-12 to the present day is considered, inclusive. That's when he was a top-six forward like the others. During this time, Clarkson jumps up to an average of 25 goals and 41 points over an 82 game schedule. So Clarkson's goal scoring appears to be on the right pace, but not his playmaking.

Of course, there's more to earning a contract than scoring points. This list includes highly respected defensive players who are known for taking on top opponents, killing penalties, and getting recognized in Selke voting.

Jeff Carter, Patrice Bergeron, Tomas Plekanec and Ryan Kesler are all great examples of the type of player David Clarkson would need to be to score at this level and still be considered a contractual success.

What's a Goal Worth?

All of this assumes that Clarkson's contractual comparables are a good use of cap space. But what's a goal worth in more general terms?

The answer is partly team-dependent. While the Leafs obviously don't need any more goaltending, for example, they obviously could have used the free-agency period to find a top-four defenseman instead of a Clarkson-like forward.

Based on some of the tough, but unskilled forwards struggling on their depth lines, Toronto might actually have been best served spreading the dollars around. A couple of veterans, including a penalty-killing specialist and/or someone who could play the tough minutes, would probably have been the safest investment.

Ultimately, the Leafs need to keep hockey's 3-1-1 rule in mind, which states that every three goals is worth one point in the standings, and should cost about one million dollars in cap space. By that logic, Clarkson would need to help score or prevent about 14 goals per season, relative to a replacement-level alternative.

According to Goals Versus Threshold (GVT)—a high-level estimate of a player's overall contributions, available over at Hockey Prospectus—Clarkson falls well short. Even in his career 2011-12 season, Clarkson's GVT was just 8.4, which would normally make him worth a cap hit of about $3.4 million.

That means that even if Clarkson played his role perfectly, it's possible that he still might not be worth his huge contract. If that proves to be the case, the blame wouldn't lie with Clarkson, but with Toronto's management. 

Of course, that is not the case right now, as he is clearly not living up to the team's expectations. Next we'll see how wide that gap is, and what can be done to close it.

What is Clarkson's Value Today?

To be worth $5.25 million per season, Clarkson would need to score about 24 goals and 56 points. He'd need to score those points while also killing penalties, shutting down top opponents and playing near the Selke level.

Both offensively and defensively, Clarkson is falling well short of those levels. He currently has just three goals and eight points in 27 games, which works out to nine goals and 24 points over an entire 82 game schedule. Even over his last 82 games with both Toronto and New Jersey, Clarkson has just 20 goals and 37 points.

Based on the chart below, Clarkson is capable of scoring 56 points, but just barely. Using game log information from Yahoo Sports, the following graph shows Clarkson's rolling totals over 82-game periods. Goals are in blue and points are in red.

Hockey Abstract

While it is far from his typical level of play, Clarkson's high-water mark is 36 goals and 57 points, so at his very best, he is capable of living up to the contract. Offensively, at least.

Defensively, Clarkson doesn't kill penalties. And while he generally plays a defensive-minded role at even strength, it's usually against the secondary lines, not the league's most powerful offensive weapons. There's definitely no Selke votes coming up in his near future.

The following table shows how Clarkson has been used over the past five seasons. It breaks down his ice time in all three manpower situations, including his own ranking among his team's forwards.

It also includes additional information about his play at even strength, like the percentage of non-neutral shifts he starts in the offensive zone, the average quality of his competition, and his team's attempted shot differential per 60 minutes when he's on the ice (also known as Corsi).

Clarkson's Playing Conditions
ES TOI12:04 (10th)11:56 (10th)13:17 (9th)14:01 (3rd)15:21 (5th)
PP TOI2:22 (7th)1:39 (11th)3:03 (4th)3:33 (3rd)1:45 (7th)
SH TOI0:000:000:010:010:00
Off Zone51.6 (13th)49.3 (16th)49.4 (11th)50.8 (12th)36.2 (16th)
Qual Comp0.02 (10th)-0.24 (11th)0.03 (9th)0.13 (12th)0.66 (7th)
Corsi-6.9 (12th)3.7 (10th)2.7 (8th)23.0 (1st)-10.7 (3rd)
NHL.com and Behind the Net

What does all this mean? Clarkson's ice time has been increasing over the years, from a strictly checking-line player to a top-six forward over the past two seasons.

While he was on the top power play unit his last two years in New Jersey, so far in Toronto, he is back to being used only as a secondary option.

He's never been used on the penalty kill, but, at even strength, he's certainly used in a defensive-minded capacity, though against secondary opponents only.

This year, for instance, he has started just 36.4 percent of his non-neutral shifts in the offensive zone, and he has never ranked among his team's top ten forwards. In complete fairness to Clarkson, it is hard to generate offense when you begin your shifts in the defensive zone.

Clarkson has also developed into a more responsible possession-oriented player these past two seasons. Despite all those starts in the defensive zone, Clarkson has ranked in the top three of his team's forwards in attempted shot differential (Corsi). That could be of particular value to a notoriously weak possession team like Toronto.

Bridging the Gap

David Clarkson is capable of earning his risky seven-year deal at $5.25 million per season, but it's a long shot.

First of all, based on his cap-based peers, Clarkson needs to find a way to return to his career peak, and score at a 55-point pace (at the very least).

That will require a continued increase in playing time, a return to the top power play unit, and being upgraded from a checking line with Mason Raymond and Trevor Smith to a top unit with the likes of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. It will also require getting his share of offensive zone draws, instead of being buried in the defensive zone like Mikhail Grabovski was last year.

More importantly, Clarkson will need to improve his defensive play somewhere close to the near-Selke level of his contractual comparables like Ryan Kesler, Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter and Tomas Plekanec. He'll need to start taking on top opponents, and still continue to rank among the team's top forwards in possession-driving numbers.

He'll also have to continue providing the extras and the intangibles. While this analytic study was focused only on what could be counted in a scoresheet, Clarkson was clearly acquired, in part, for the grit, hard work, leadership and physicality that make a huge difference on the ice, on the bench and in the locker room.

Furthermore, he will have to establish himself at this level quickly, and then maintain it well into his 30s—an age when most power forwards start to transition into more of a support role.

This is a very tall order, but anything short of that, and for any significant stretch of time over the next seven seasons, and GM David Nonis will be anxiously waiting for the next compliance buyout.

All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.



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