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article imageOp-Ed: Clarkson debut will show what Maple Leafs are made of

By Tyler Hunt     Oct 25, 2013 in Sports
When Mimico, Ontario native David Clarkson signed a lucrative seven-year, $36 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs this past offseason, the former Devils winger could hardly hold his excitement to play for the team he grew up watching.
That debut would be put on hold, however, following a fight-filled preseason game Sep. 22 against the Buffalo Sabres that saw both teams combine for over 230 minutes in penalties.
After Sabres enforcer John Scott attacked Leafs star Phil Kessel during the third period, Clarkson left the players bench in defence of his teammate, a move that would net him an automatic ten-game suspension from the league, and a delay to what would have been a much-publicized regular season premiere for the newly signed winger.
As with any big-name free agent acquisition, Clarkson's seven-year deal was criticized by some fans and members of the media due to the extensive term and Clarkson's uncertain potential to live up to the contract given his lack of consistent production at the NHL level.
What made matters worse, was that he was to be a key addition to a Maple Leafs lineup that made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 following last year's lockout-shortened season, and there was already pressure on Clarkson to produce, and to produce early.
Clarkson's absence not only caused salary cap issues for a team that was already up against the ceiling and had yet to re-sign restricted free agent Cody Franson, but the hole in the lineup caused the Leafs to field a much shallower lineup than the one general manager Dave Nonis envisioned at the start of training camp.
Through the first ten games of the season, Toronto has filled Clarkson's spot by dressing the likes of Josh Leivo, Trevor Smith, Carter Ashton, and David Broll. Paired with injuries to forwards Nik Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul, Mason Raymond is averaging nearly 19 minutes a night in ice-time, and has seen a much more prominent role on Toronto's top-six than originally expected.
Despite being routinely outshot throughout the first ten games of the season, the Leafs have managed to stay afloat, and are in fact tied with Boston for the Atlantic Division lead, amassing an impressive 7-3-0 record.
While much of that success can be attributed to a potent goaltending tandem of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, the Leafs top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk have pulled most of the weight, accounting for 13 goals combined, nearly half of the teams scoring production if you include Dion Phaneuf, who is on the ice with the big line more often than not.
There is no doubt that the Leafs are a deeper and more dangerous team with Clarkson in the lineup, and outside of the top six, the rest of the Leafs forwards have combined for just five goals thus far (three of which were scored by Dave Bolland, who has also seen some time on the second unit).
Clarkson's return gives the team some much needed depth on the wing, and will give a much clearer picture of how the forwards shake down with what has become a strong top three lines, at least on paper.
At Leafs practice yesterday, Clarkson skated on the second line alongside Bolland and Raymond. Given his salary and ability to provide both scoring and grit, that's likely where he'll be slated for most of the year, which relegates Joffrey Lupul to the third unit with Nazem Kadri and Jay McClement — not a bad slot for Lupul, who was named an alternate captain in the 2012 NHL All-Star Game.
Depending on how the chemistry works out going forward, Mason Raymond may see his role diminish into more third line and powerplay responsibilities (though with 8 points in 10 games, head coach Randy Carlyle can't be too unhappy with the Alberta-natives production thus far). But the fact is the Leafs have three strong lines with depth throughout the forward position — something that hasn't been said in a long time around these parts.
Only time will tell, as the Leafs visit the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight and then host Pittsburgh before heading out on a three-game road trip to Western Canada. For Clarkson, he will no longer have to watch from the press box, and will finally get the opportunity to don the Maple Leaf crest he grew up cheering for.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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