November 18 2013 11:02AM
David Clarkson hasn't necessarily been under attack, but we can say that people are beginning to question the things Clarkson can do on the ice. I don't necessarily think he's been all that bad in his first few games as a Leaf. He's leading the team in most puck-possession categories, has had a few scoring chances and unfortunately finds himself goal-less in mid-November, something that could have been impossible to forecast back in July when he signed his long contract.
Clarkson now has 10 games under his belt, and he has just three assists in those games. A 10-game goal-less slump doesn't particularly bother me. Players slump, they don't get the bounces, whatever, but what does have me worried is that Clarkson is just shooting at 2.0 shots per game. He's a high-volume, low-percentage shooter who was 43rd in shots per game among forwards between 2010 and the end of the shortened 2013 campaign. So what's happened?
I think it's fair to sweat the shots on goal with Clarkson because that's his big talent. In my post attempting to forecast Clarkson's performance, written before he signed in Toronto, I isolated "size and shots per game rate" as the key distinction that Clarkson had over other goal scorers. Among the 79 players with at least 2.5 shots on goal per game over the three seasons before this one, Clarkson was 63rd in shooting percentage. Essentially, he needs quantity to be able to produce.
The problem is not just because Clarkson's not getting time on the powerplay:
A point about data… data isn't something to use to mould to fit your own theories. When there are big year-to-year changes in data, there's something that's worth questioning. Clarkson is about 12 total shots at 5-on-5 behind his rate of last season, so it's not like this is a problem with sampling, where a small addition to a number makes a big difference. No, this has something to do with either Clarkson's play or the Leafs' play.
However… this isn't the first time that Clarkson has played a 10-game stretch over the last three seasons generating just 2.0 shots per game. Here's a graph of Clarkson's 10-game rolling average in that department:
The most notable dip comes around the Game 125 mark. After a run of ten games with just 21 shots on goal, Clarkson exploded in the next ten for 30 shots. He also had six goals during that span. Basically, while shot indicators are pretty good and fairly repeatable, they too are subject from unfair conclusions generated from a small amount of data.
I'm not sure that Clarkson is going to be able to keep up that shots per game rate of the last two seasons, in part because of his age, and in part because he no longer gets to play with players that are very good at controlling tempo, but I think it's fair to expect that he'll wind up the season bringing up that shots rate, and hopefully bring a few goals along with it. I say "hopefully" because on Friday I placed a bet that Clarkson would score over 13.5 goals between now and the end of the season. We came to that number because I'd initially thought Clarkson would score 17.5 over an 82-game season, and the Leafs had 63 games left (at the time) and 17.5/82*63 = a little over 13.
Steve qualifies the salary that Clarkson is drawing as "difference-maker money" and I think that's a fair phrase. However, I think when we look at player production, oftentimes we worry too much about what a player makes rather than what they're actually doing on the ice. The offseason is when you have to worry about value and prices, whereas during the season, there's no shame in being a $5-million third line player. A lot of people get blinded when a generally effective player is making more than he should be, and it creates an odd expectation wherein a player becomes simultaneously overrated and underrated. Clarkson's not in that point yet, but if he keeps playing like he's playing—which has been positive hockey for his first ten games with an even Corsi rate—ultimately the bounces are going to sync up with the offence he's generating.
We shouldn't gauge a long-term contract based on ten games and while I ultimately think that this was a horrible, horrible bet by Dave Nonis that is going to look catastrophic three or four seasons from now, don't let that take away that in the current season, Clarkson is probably going to be an effective player.
What I'd like to see is a bit more time with Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri. Those three haven't been together at all, really, because Lupul got hurt when Clarkson returned from suspension, and now Kadri is off serving his own suspension. I'd like to see Clarkson fight less and try and be less aggressive along the boards, because I think in his effort to make an impression as a physical player, he's focusing less on the real valuable things like shots and goals.
So we'll see what happens. I think Clarkson has been playing better than the results he's getting, and obviously both his 0.0% individual shooting percentage and the Leafs' 2.6% shooting percentage when he's on the ice are both unsustainably low. As long as this play continues, the shots will come, and the goals will come. As for shot quality... Clarkson is a high-volume shooter. He's had some chances, but not a whole lot. As the shots increase, so will the chances and so will the goals, but shooting percentages can have crazy swings over a short period of time no matter who the shooter is.