(photo credit: thestar.com)
Like many hockey players who grew up in the greater Toronto area, David Clarkson had boyhood visions of one day donning the blue and white sweater of his hometown team. On Friday, the opening day of the NHL’s annual free agency period, Clarkson’s dreams came to fruition when he inked a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with the club.
“It’s an honour to be here,” Clarkson told reporters. “I wore that jersey as a kid. I was a big Leafs fan when I was little so it’ll be pretty special to put it on”.
Over the past decade, the Leafs supposed hometown advantage has not translated to on-ice success, as far as free agents are concerned. Southern Ontario natives Jeff O’Neill, Eric Lindros, Owen Nolan, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jason Allison and Michael Peca all signed with Toronto with mediocre to lukewarm results. Nieuwendyk’s presence was the most impactful of the group, but the Hall of Famer only had a stall at Air Canada Centre for one season.
The Leafs made their best free agent signing in 1998 when Curtis Joseph became the team’s starting goaltender and backstopped Toronto to a pair of semi-final appearances within the next four years.
In 2000 Toronto was able to leverage some hometown sentiment by getting both Shayne Corson and Gary Roberts to sign on the dotted line.
Clarkson – one of the most coveted players in this year’s crop of available talent – represents a combination of scoring prowess and physical play that the Leafs have sorely needed. His grittiness along the wing places him in the mold of Roberts, the team’s last successful Ontario-born free agent.
That’s not to suggest that Clarkson will ever be a 50-goal scorer like Roberts was in his career year of 1992-93 with the Calgary Flames. But it’s worth noting that Clarkson’s most recent pre-lockout season of 2011-12 saw him register 30 goals for the first time in his career while piling up 138 penalty minutes. By comparison, Roberts’ first campaign in a Leafs uniform in 2000-01 resulted in 29 goals and 109 penalty minutes when he was 34 and in the twilight of his career. Clarkson achieved his career best totals two years ago when he was 27.
An undrafted late bloomer who played his junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers, Clarkson – the former New Jersey Devils right winger – has seen his name emerge as a dark horse candidate to play for Team Canada at next year’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
It has been 13 years since the Leafs made a significant hometown signing off the market. Clarkson’s feisty spirit and nose for the net – like that of Roberts before him – brings a much-needed element to the Leafs top six forward unit and represents money well-spent.
Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter: @TMLFansRob