With David Clarkson becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Devils (and likely other teams) will have to figure out just how much he is worth going forward. When looking at his career arc, determining his value is a little bit on the difficult side. Pre-2011-12 David Clarkson is not someone you're handing over long-term, high salary contracts to. He was a serviceable pest, but most people were hoping for a little more out of Clarkson than being a 3rd/4th line punching bag. The past two seasons, Clarkson has stepped up his play quite a bit and now stands to get paid in a pretty weak free agent market. How high should the Devils be willing to go?
Before his breakout season, Clarkson was a player who was producing somewhere in the vicinity of 15 goals and 25 points per year. He seemed to have a decent shot and, being a young guy, people had some high hopes for his ability to become a good scorer heading into the future. He actually seemed to be trending in the right direction in 2008-09 when he chipped in 17 goals and then an injury shortened 2009-10 campaign when he was on pace for about 20 goals and 40-45 points. With those trends in mind, he was signed a 3-year, $2.67M AAV contract.
Then 2010-11 happened, and a lot of doubts started to creep in regarding Clarkson's potential. He, like just about every other Devil, had a disastrous season. He only put up 12 goals and 6 assists, making a lot of folks question whether he was even worth the money in that contract. The words "trade" and "buyout" were definitely thrown around more than a few times by fans in the 2011 offseason. In Clarkson's defense, he actually suffered from a pretty dreadful shooting percentage that year, hovering around 6%, so he may have been the victim of some bad luck in that campaign.
Before he became David Clarkson, 30-Goal Scorer, his claim to fame was more along the lines of David Clarkson, Puncher of Many Faces. Clarky spent a lot of time in the penalty box earlier in his career, averaging around 170 PIM per 82 games from 2007-08 to 2009-10. He was fighting an average of 20 times per season over that period, so he was earning himself a bit of a reputation around the NHL for being the Devils goon-in-chief (albeit a much more productive one than the most recent administrations). His fights started to tail off a little bit in 2010-11 when he only fought 13 times, though he was still the team leader by leaps and bounds. Any way you slice it, having more fighting majors than goals is not a great way to be a productive player.
Looking at Clarkson's career possession stats, the line of demarcation between Old Clarky and Clarky 2.0 is pretty clearly shown. His CorsiRel numbers show a guy who was driving down possession while he was on the ice for the first four years of his career. Part of this could be due to having lousy linemates a lot of those seasons, but when you spend as much time fighting as Clarky did early in his career, it's hard to be relied on for any kind of top line role. Bottom line is that the team looked worse when Clarkson was out there, though you can see him starting to turn the corner in possession in that 2010-11 season (his shot totals also went way up that season, so he did seem to be playing better, despite the lousy point output).
The Breakout Season
Following the low-output 2010-11 season, not a lot of people were expecting big things from Clarkson (though based on his underlying numbers, perhaps we should have expected a little more than we did). But as we all know, Clarkson broke out in a big way in 2011-12 and pleasantly surprised a lot of Devils fans. He put up 30 goals and 46 points on the season and was a big contributor on a good Devils team that would make a run to the Cup finals.
It was conceivable that Clarkson was going to improve over his earlier work, but improving to the extent he did is not something many people would have predicted. His shooting got pretty hot, explaining some of it, but there was a big shift in his underlying numbers which also powered his improvement. Clarkson turned up his shot output big time, getting a by-far career high of 228 pucks on net. Not Kovalchuk territory, but still putting him in the realm of first-liner shot output. In terms of attempts, with a CorsiRel of +3.1, the 2011-12 season was the first of Clarkson's career that the Devils were a better possession team with him on the ice than they were without him. Granted, he spent a lot of time with possession dynamo Patrik Elias, but he still earned his way on to that line and helped make it a productive unit.
Another note to take away from the 2011-12 was that Clarkson's fight total fell all the way down to seven. It would appear that Clarkson was too busy being good at hockey to worry about fighting every single game in his breakout year.
The Most Recent Campaign
David Clarkson started off the 2013 season playing (and shooting) out of his mind. Fourteen games into the season, he already had ten goals and was among the league leaders. Yeah his shooting was hot, but he was also pouring on around five SOG per game. It looked like he could be even better than his big 30 goal season the year prior. Alas, he cooled off big time and had a seriously frustrating remainder of the season, only potting five goals and three assists the rest of the way. That frustration began to set in and you started to see Clarkson drop the mitts more to try to find his way into the box score somehow. My fear was that old Clarky was making his return.
Looking at the season as a whole now, though, you can absolutely argue that this was Clarkson's best yet. Yes he got very cold in the last two months (like a lot of Devils), but save for a mid-season lull between two different Flyers blowouts, Clarkson was hammering goaltenders with shots this year. His 180 shots on the season projects out to about 308(!) shots over 82 games. That is an elite-level shot output. The only guys with more this past season are a few guys you may have heard of who go by the names Alex Ovechkin, Evander Kane, and (grr) Zach Parise. Clarkson's possession numbers were fantastic this past season as well, with him ranking tops among Devils forwards in Corsi.
I'll be honest, I was a little down on Clarkson before I started researching this piece. The artificially inflated expectations from the first month of the season along with an ice-cold two month stretch probably conspired to make me hop on the "good riddance" bandwagon if he were to leave this summer. Looking at things through glasses which are considerably less rage-tinted, I may be swinging back the other way now.
If Clarkson gets paid huge by someone like Toronto (think more than 5 years, more than $5M per), then I'm still not sure he's worth that kind of money. He remains a not-very-good passer/playmaker and his assist totals more than back that up. His skating is still "meh," at best (though I do think Air Clarkson has gotten a little better at staying upright these days). But he shoots the puck and scores goals, which are things the Devils very sorely need. His possession stats also show that he has become a player very capable of driving play forward. I could definitely live with giving Clarkson 5 years and $4-4.5M per to keep him around on a team with a dearth of scorers. Is that enough? Hard to predict with the free agent market shaking out the way it is. Bottom line is that I think you could spend your money in worse ways. Clarky remains a tough guy and someone who teammates and coaches seem to love having "in the room" so to speak, so I think he's still a good fit for this squad. We shall see, come July.
So what are your feelings on Clarkson going forward? What is he worth in your eyes? Do you think he can continue on this seasons grueling SOG pace? Fire away in the comments section below. Thanks for reading.