TORONTO – David Clarkson doesn’t really know his role, but he is shutting his mouth.
Just five games into life with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the veteran winger is adjusting to different external expectations than he had the past few seasons for the New Jersey Devils. Clarkson has primarily been used in a defensive role since making his debut after a 10-game suspension.
“I’m trying to get to know my surroundings,” Clarkson said. “I got suspended early in exhibition so I really don’t know much yet. I’m just trying to fit in (as a) piece of the puzzle, wherever that is. It has been different, but I’m trying to figure out what part it is that I do fit in.”
Where Clarkson fits in is a fluid situation. When he faces the Devils for the first time Friday night, the 29-year-old could be in more of the offensive role that he grew into in New Jersey.
That’s because injuries to centres Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland caused coach Randy Carlyle to shuffle his lineup, moving James van Riemsdyk to the middle and putting Clarkson on the second line with Mason Raymond and Nazem Kadri.
“We’ve been forced to do that through the injuries and specifically the last two,” Carlyle said. “It’s kind of like everybody’s been forced to change, everybody’s been forced to do something a little different.”
What was different for Clarkson in his first five games was a focus on shutting down opponents’ top lines. It reminded him of much earlier in his career when he played alongside John Madden and Jay Pandolfo with the Devils.
Of course being an assignment defender isn’t what got Clarkson a US$36.75, seven-year contract with the Leafs. Clarkson scored 30 goals the last time the NHL had a full season and attracted significant interest in free agency as a goal-scorer.
Clarkson has just one assist and no goals so far with Toronto.
“The last three or four years I think I’ve played more of an offensive role: power play, that type of role. I’m still feeling things out,” Clarkson said. “Maybe Randy’s trying to feel me out. I don’t know, but I’m asked to do my job, and that’s what I do. Whatever the coach asks you, that’s what you do. He’s your boss and you go out there and do what he asks.”
Carlyle asked Clarkson to play with Bolland and Raymond against Sidney Crosby’s line Oct. 26 when the Leafs hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins, giving them a very specific job.
Clarkson will likely be counted on more offensively in upcoming games, even though he conceded he had “no idea” what effect the Bolland and Bozak injuries would have on him. He said he’ll do “whatever helps the team win.”
“Whatever role you’re handed, you take it to heart and you go out there and do your job,” Clarkson said. “Whatever that role is, I think you’ve got to find a way to make it your own, to make it successful.”
Kadri feels for Clarkson’s challenge in trying to adjust with the season already in full swing.
“Especially with how his situation went with missing the first 10 games, it’s tough to kind of find your rhythm right off the bat so you’ve got to do some other things to kind of get back into the groove and find that touch again,” Kadri said. “Hopefully we can get him on the scoreboard a couple times. I’m sure it’ll be nice to produce some offence against his old team.”
Clarkson has nothing but good things to say about his old team, especially general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Peter DeBoer.
“Mr. Lamoriello and Pete DeBoer are probably two of the biggest reasons I’m in the National Hockey League,” Clarkson said. “Pete DeBoer is someone that I believe has made me successful in my career by giving me opportunity and believing in me and understanding me as a person.”
Clarkson knows that facing the team that he broke into the league with and played six full seasons will be special because he has fond memories of New Jersey, including the friends he made on the Devils and his daughter, McKinnley, being born there in 2011. But this isn’t necessarily a milestone for him in the process of moving on.
“I think I cut that cord when I signed my contract here,” Clarkson said. “I’m not someone that thinks about things or dwells on it. I think I’ll always be grateful to them, I’ll always be thankful. But this is the next chapter in my life for me and my family and I look forward to it.”
Clarkson is most looking forward to things sifting out with the Leafs, something that is still very much a work in progress.
In Clarkson’s first 10 games, Carlyle saw energy and someone committed to playing tight on opponents, but that’s not all.
“I saw a guy that looks like he missed the first 10 games of the season in some situations,” Carlyle said. “We just want him to continue to grow and be a physical player, be a player we can count on night in, night out. I think that’s what his vision is, also.”
Clarkson said he has felt great on the ice early this season, and he pledged to continue to learn what the coaching staff wants from him.
“I’m going out there doing what my coach asks,” he said. “My goal is to do whatever I’m asked and help this team win. That’s the biggest thing that matters to me.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.