Devils' Clarkson proving last year's 30-goal season was no fluke
by David Kolb/Correspondent
In his junior and minor-league career, David Clarkson scored 30 goals only once — with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League in 2004-05.
The next time he would reach the 30-goal plateau came at the highest level of hockey, when he scored 30 goals last season for the New Jersey Devils.
After going undrafted, Clarkson signed with the Devils on Aug. 12, 2005, as a free agent and was sent to Albany of the AHL. In his first season playing for the Albany River Rats, Clarkson showed both his scoring ability and his toughness, but was making a name for himself more for the latter than the former. He scored 13 goals during his first pro season and tallied 21 assists, but his 233 penalty minutes was how he was making his mark not just in the pros, but within the Devils organization.
Near the end of the 2006-07 season, Clarkson was promoted to the Devils and has never returned to the minors. But until the beginning of last year, he was thought of as a solid player best suited for a checking line.
That all changed when the Devils hired their new coach, Pete DeBoer, in the summer of 2011.
Clarkson has thrived ever since.
This, however, wasn’t luck. The success that fans saw last year from both Clarkson and DeBoer was simply history repeating itself. DeBoer coached Clarkson in juniors in 2002-03, teaming up to lead Kitchener to the Memorial Cup. The player enjoyed great success, scoring 22 goals and notching 17 assists that season. Clarkson was not even selected in the junior draft; the Rangers acquired him from Belleville for basically peanuts.
“I actually picked him up on waivers. It was either waivers or a trade, basically for the waiver fee,” said DeBoer. “He was almost given away by the junior team (Belleville Bulls) that was giving him up. We grabbed him as a guy we were going to take a chance on.
“Actually, he had to grow on me. We had some rough patches through the early part of his career, to say the least. To his credit, he’s turned himself into a player. This is a guy who was drafted late in junior and was never drafted in the NHL. You admire guys like that for sticking it out.”
From that Kitchener team, Mike Richards, Derek Roy and Gregory Campbell all were drafted into the NHL, while Clarkson was not.
“‘Clarkie’ is a great story,” said DeBoer. “I’ve said all along, in my history with him, he’s always scored big goals at big times.”
Last season, the Devils went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and, with DeBoer behind the bench, Clarkson produced his best season as a pro. He netted 30 goals and notched 16 assists, and added 12 more points in the playoffs. There were 30 players last season that reached at least 30 goals; however, Clarkson was the only one who went undrafted.
“It’s a good feeling to have a coach like that, that you have a relationship with,” Clarkson said last season during the playoffs. “I have tons of respect for him. He helped me get here (the NHL) and it’s been pretty special with him this year.”
Clarkson is quick to give credit to his coach for his production boost, which has continued through the first month of the 2013 season, in which he already has scored 10 goals.
“He has definitely helped me a lot, confidence-wise,” Clarkson said. “Putting me out on the ice in certain situations and giving me those extra minutes. It definitely helped.”
Last year it might have helped; however, this season, his contributions are a must, with the departure of last year’s super-skilled captain, Zach Parise. The big question coming into this season was how the Devils would replace Parise’s 30-plus annual goals.
Well, Clarkson has answered through the first month of the season, with 10 goals and 16 points in his team’s first 18 games. He has done everything to prove that last season was no fluke. More to the point, he is no longer playing on a checking line, as his current linemates — Adam Henrique and Patrick Elias — ooze with offensive talent.
“Obviously, with Parise leaving, that opened up a hole in our top six for a winger that could score, and he’s moved to the first power-play unit,” said DeBoer. “His offensive role has increased, but he’s earned it. He earned that promotion and the ability to be the next guy after Zach left.”
Despite his early success, Clarkson is staying grounded with a keen understanding of his role.
“I came into the league as a fourth-line guy who had to do that stuff,” he said. “You will still see me do that stuff (including fighting), but at the end of the day, I’m getting to play quite a bit, and when this team is winning, that’s the most important thing.”
“Clarkson most reminds me of the transformation of Vic Hadfield,” said MSG Network analyst and New York Hockey Journal columnist Stan Fischler. “He came to the Rangers in 1961, a quasi-goon who spent his first year or two getting into fights. He couldn’t skate and had an unimpressive shot. But with a lot of hard work and experience, he not only honed his game to sharpness, but became a first-liner and 50-goal scorer for the Blueshirts. Clarkson is well on his way to becoming a latter-day Hadfield.”
Clarkson’s production comes with hockey smarts and guts. His goals often are not the prettiest, but he pursues the puck in traffic and in tight areas reserved for the NHL’s bravest.
“He’s in the area you have to pay a price to go,” said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur. “He’s around the puck. It could be behind the net, a chaotic position in front of the net (and) he can get a quick shot off. He wants to score. He wants to go to the net with the puck.”
“A lot of his goals are out front in the dirty area,” said Henrique. “He’s getting whacked. It’s no fun.”
While it might not be fun, Clarkson is certainly smiling.