Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Will the Leafs Sign David Clarkson?

david clarkson leafs ufa
For the first time in years, the Leafs will hit free agency with money to spend. Unfortunately, this year's free agent crop is missing out on big name talent, and the areas the Leafs most need to improve, centre and defence, are practically barren. But there is a player practically made to play in Toronto, a folk hero in waiting, one even with Darcy Tucker crazy eyes.

Toronto-born David Clarkson, who grew up idolizing Wendel Clark, will definitely be on Dave Nonis' shopping list if he hits free agency, and for good reason.

Clarkson has scored 45 goals over the past two seasons, more than players like Bobby Ryan, Martin St. Louis, and Daniel Sedin. Over the last two years Clarkson has scored like a good second line winger, and would effectively replace Clarke MacArthur, who likely won't be re-signed after a poor offensive season in which he was a healthy scratch at times.

In addition to adding some scoring pop to the top-six, Clarkson would add a physical element that is sorely missing up front. More importantly, his physicality does not come at the expense of his overall puck possession game.

Over the past five years, the Devils have controlled 52% of the shot attempts at even strength when Clarkson is on the ice. By comparison, among the Leafs' current crop of forwards, only Mikhail Grabovski tilted the ice more in his team's favour (52.5%) and only two other players controlled more than 50% of the shots for Toronto (Nikolai Kulemin and MacArthur). Moreover, Clarkson's 52% mark puts him in the top-30 wingers in the league.

The Leafs were not a very good puck possession team last year, controlling only 44.1% of all shot attempts at even strength (good enough for dead last in the league), and Clarkson should be able to help in that department.

Although Clarkson hasn't been trusted with very hard defensive minutes, Pete DeBoer didn't shelter him either, preferring rather to mix up Clarkson's minutes and use him in a two-way role. That versatility will help a Toronto squad that had to play Grabovski and Kulemin in a purely defensive role because too many players required solely offensive minutes.

There are some concerns, however. Clarkson has only emerged as a viable top-six forward over the last two seasons, and his 30-goal 2011-12 campaign is an extreme outlier (previous career high is 17). Signing free agents with a shallow history of top-six success and expecting top-six production going forward doesn't usually end well.

While Clarkson's offensive emergence the past two seasons may seem out of nowhere, it's not a fluke. Clarkson has emerged thanks to increased offensive opportunity. Coinciding with his breakout in 2011-12, Clarkson began receiving top-six minutes (16-18 minutes a night), rather than the sub-15 minutes he played during his first few seasons in the league. He has also been awarded with over three minutes in power play time a night over the past two years, a big increase from the rest of his career.

Top-six minutes also meant top-six linemates, a big change from the checkers Clarkson previously played with. Over his first four full seasons, Clarkson most often played with Rob Niedermayer, Mike Mottau, John Madden, Danius Zubrus, and Brian Rolston. Over the past two seasons, Clarkson most often played with Patrick Elias, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Peter Sykora. That's an upgrade.

And while it might be easy to write off Clarkson's success the past two seasons as being primarily driven by his better teammates, he is still a strong puck possession player without the aid of established offensive players like Elias. When Clarkson is playing without Elias, the Devils control 53% of the shots at even strength; when Elias is playing without Clarkson, the Devils control 52.8% of the shots. The difference is even more pronounced when Clarkson and Henrique are apart (55% vs. 52.8%) and when Clarkson and Zajac are apart (54.3% vs. 52.5%). So it isn't a matter of Clarkson riding the coattails of his teammates.

Plus, Clarkson's point production at even strength has been essentially the same on a per-minute basis as it was before his breakout. Over his first four seasons Clarkson was scoring 1.51 points per 60 minutes; the last two seasons he has scored 1.57 points per 60 minutes. So he's largely been the same player at even strength throughout his whole career, regardless of who he is playing with. To produce, he just needs top-six minutes.

For all those reasons, Leafs fans better be ready to pony up for the rugged forward. He ain't signing cheap.

The three most comparable players to Clarkson over the past two seasons are Patric Hornqvist, Alex Burrows, and Erik Cole (each scored between 0.3-0.4 goals per game and 0.5-0.6 points per game).

Hornqvist re-signed with Nashville as an RFA this season (before his age 27 season) for $4.25 million a year over five years. His new deal buys out one RFA year and four UFA years.
Burrows also re-signed before hitting the open market, re-upping with Vancouver as a UFA for $4.5 million a year over four years. Burrows is older than Clarkson, and his deal kicks in starting in his age 32 season.

Finally, Cole did see what fortunes awaited for him on July 1, signing as a 33-year-old UFA for $4.5 million a season over four years.

Because Hornqvist signed as a RFA and couldn't entice multiple teams into a bidding war, his $4.25 million deal isn't reflective of what Clarkson can demand as a UFA. In addition, Clarkson is younger than both Cole and Burrows, signing for the start of his 29-year-old season, so their $4.5 million cap hits are on the lower end of what Clarkson can reasonably argue he's worth. Clarkson also has the luxury of being one of the few young, physical power forwards on the market.

Therefore, it's probably going to cost at least $5 million a season over four years to sign Clarkson, maybe even $5.5-6 million a year over five years, unless he decides to sign at a discount to come home. Unfortunately, that rarely happens, especially in Toronto.

At that price point, Toronto will have to think very hard, despite the abundance of cap space waiting to be spent. Phil Kessel will need a new deal starting in 2014-15, and he's going to command at least $7 million a season. If the Leafs sign Clarkson at $5 million a year and Kessel at $7 million, that will mean the Leafs have tied up $21.5 million into their four top-six wingers, making it much more difficult to make upgrades at more important positions—centre and defence.

Contending teams are almost always built through the middle, and signing Clarkson, even though he would bring a lot of positives, could mean the Leafs have to skimp out on their centres and their defence.

Clarkson would definitely improve the Leafs, and the money is there to spend. Dave Nonis will have to weigh short-term improvement with the potential future cap complications surely to arise.

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