King David

David Clarkson was never drafted.  He was signed as an undrafted-free agent out of the Ontario Hockey League by Lou Lamoriello and the NJ Devils in August of 2005.  While expected to eventually make the NHL roster, Clarkson was never really viewed as anything but a solid checking line forward.  Fans in NJ liked him, because he fit the mold of various role players the club had used to win its 3 Stanley Cups.

Many hockey players reach a point during the pursuit of their dream where they see the only road into the NHL is as an enforcer.  In many ways, this was the perception of Clarkson as he entered the league.  His shot to stay in the NHL was his athleticism and ability to deliver powerful hits and drop the gloves with anyone in the league.  He was a supplemental role player there to keep other teams top players in check while NJ’s skill players generated the offense.  His early career stats indicated this.  The 2006-07 season represented Clarkson’s first full campaign.  He played 81 games, with an average ice time at 12:02 per game.  In all of that he only generated 22 points, but racked up 183 penalty minutes as he embraced his role as a young enforcer on the team. 

Clarkson fully embraced his early role as the team's enforcer

Clarkson fully embraced his early role as the team’s enforcer

Over the next 3 seasons the pattern would continue.  He would play 82, 46 (due to injury) and 82 totaling only 74 points but 365 penalty minutes in the combined 210 games.  By comparison, 2005 first overall pick Sidney Crosby would play only 199 games over that same 3 year period, but put up 278 points.  While he showed everyone he could be a solid everyday NHLer, it was clear that he was far from being a top six forward; he was likely looking at a journeyman career that would see a lot of 1 and 2 year contracts from numerous teams, common among the league’s enforcer types.

 Then, all of a sudden, the man affectionately known as “Clarkie” may have completely changed his career.  In 2011-12, he exploded as a scoring threat.  In 80 games, he averaged 16:22 of ice time and buried 30 pucks, along with his 16 assists, giving him 46 points.  In a season where question marks surrounded the Devils’ ability to score Clarkie’s contributions were a major reason the Devils entered the playoffs as a 6th seed and made it to the Finals.  Yet, entering this year, with the defection of Zach Parise  and his 31 goals (69 total points) to Minnesota, the same questions were posed about NJ’s scoring.

All throughout the preseason/lockout, NHL “experts” picked the Devils to miss the postseason, regarding last year’s run as a bit of a fluke.  The prevailing thought was that, losing Parise and RW Petr Sykora (a combined 52 goals) would be too much for the Devils to overcome, especially since it appeared they would fill the openings with draftees and minor league prospects rather than free agents.  In many ways, Clarkson became the embodiment of the Devils.  The Devils as a club were doubted because of a perceived lack of offense, and much of that stemmed from the idea that, like their playoff run, Clarkson’s 30 goal season was a fluke and the guy who spent his entire career as a checking line role player would fall back to earth. 

Under Coach Pete DeBoer, Clarkson has morphed into a dangerous offensive threat

Under Coach Pete DeBoer, Clarkson has morphed into a dangerous offensive threat

These doubts coupled with the anger of coming so close only to fall short has motivated Clarkson and his teammates.  Given that this season is only 48 games, most people feel that 30 goals is impossible to reach, through 12 games Clarkie is on pace to score 36.  He’s 2nd in the NHL with 9 goals in 12 games including two 2-goal performances against bitter divisional opponents in NY and Pittsburgh. 

“For Clarkie to score 30 was no fluke,” goalie Johan Hedberg said. “I see him in practice every day and he is a really good player.”

“I think people thought maybe last year was an accident for him or a fluke and he’s showing it isn’t,” Devils Coach Pete DeBoer said.

“It’s like me scoring 30. Do I think people doubted me? Yeah I do,” Clarkson said. “People doubted us. I think there were people that every round weren’t taking us. They thought other teams were going to win, but it’s a fun thing when you go into a building and everybody knows you’re going to show up and compete. Maybe they’re not thinking you’re going to win, but you prove them wrong and it’s a fun position to be in.”

Clarkson's earned the support and trust of his coaches and teammates

Clarkson’s earned the support and trust of his coaches and teammates

What’s done it though?  How has Clarkie suddenly found this next level to his game that so many players fail to ever realize.  Hedberg’s identified part of the equation.  If he says he sees how hard Clarkson works at practice, I believe him, and obviously hard work in practice will pay off in games.  But, I don’t really believe he wasn’t working hard when he was routinely scoring single digit goals, that’s just not the type of player he is.  Ever since he’s been here he’s shown that he’s that prototypical “effort and energy guy,” the type of player who stays and succeeds in this league not on talent, but through gritty hard work.

My theory, and I’m no expert of course, is it’s has a lot to do with DeBoer.  First of all, Clarkson played for DeBoer in the OHL as a teenager.  Much of what got him into the NHL in the first place was instilled in him through his years with DeBoer in Ontario.  Second, DeBoer’s system is tailor-made for a player like Clarkson to succeed.  It emphasizes energy with an aggressive fore-check game designed to keep teams in their defensive zone for long shifts.  Clarkson’s ability to check and play along the boards and behind the net make him the perfect catalyst for this type of attack.  Clarkie is 6-1 and 200 pounds, he’s strong and good on his skates.  He uses these skills to control the puck well along the boards and in the corner, often drawing multiple defenders freeing up ice for line mates.  Finally, Clarkson has a knack of getting to the right spots on the ice.  Many of his goals come from right in front, in the low slot virtually in the crease.  Again his strength and balance come into play as defenders have a tough job trying to force him out of such a dangerous area.   So to me, it’s a bit of a combo.  His hard work in practice and during offseasons to improve his scoring and passing touch, along with his natural size and strength, allow him to be the perfect player for DeBoer’s system.  It allows him to do what he does best and the offense follows.  Since he was reunited with DeBoer in NJ, he’s played 92 games, scored 39 goals and had 22 assists for a total of 61 points.  Those are top 6 talent numbers, if I’ve ever seen them. 

As always happens in sports, these big years often come at inopportune times for the business end of operations.  Clarkson will be an unrestricted free agent this July, allowing any team in the league to bid for his services.  He’s saying all the right things at the moment, but as Zach Parise showed us last year, it doesn’t mean a thing until pen is put to paper.  Frankly, I don’t see the Devils letting this one get away.  With new CBA restricts preventing super-contracts like the 13-year, $98 million deal that pried Parise away from NJ, the Devils should be able to work out a nice 4-5 year deal, probably in the $20 million range to keep Clarkie in Newark.  The simply must. 

And just for fun, here’s so far my favorite Clarkson goal of his career: