A Closer Look at David Clarkson's Comeback Season

David Clarkson is not yelling, "Take a look at this great season I'm having so far!!!!!!!!", in this photo - but he could. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

David Clarkson scored his fifteenth goal of the season on Wednesday night, the first and only goal the New Jersey Devils would score against Boston. With that blowout loss now in the recent past, we can at least say it wasn't a shutout. Not that's really all that much to boast about withing in the game, but there you are.

David Clarkson leads the New Jersey Devils in goals with 15 goals with that one tally against Boston. He leads the team with 10 even strength goals and he's tied with Patrik Elias with 5 power play goals. I'm sure fans and fantasy owners alike would prefer Zach Parise or Ilya Kovalchuk or someone else to lead in goals. Certainly not the third line right winger. Clarkson seemingly hasn't done much different than what he normally does on the ice from watching him, so the goal scoring is certainly a surprise. More than the fact that he's now a star in a local commercial.

David Clarkson was somebody I didn't want on the team last season. He bounced between the third and fourth lines due to his on-ice performance. Not only was he not contributing much on the score sheet, he wasn't doing much to prove he was above playing with the likes of Brad Mills or Adam Mair at times. For a player worth $2.667 million on a salary cap, that's not good enough. Last February, I felt it was time to cut losses with Clarkson. Obviously, the Devils didn't do that since he's still on the team. With 15 goals in 39 games, I have to say I'm eating some crow for that statement.

I also have to say that his play this season warrants a closer look. Is David Clarkson playing better this season? Is Clarkson just getting some good luck? Is it a combination of both to some degree? Let's try to answer those questions after the jump.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2011-12 - David Clarkson 39 15 4 19 -11 70 5 0 3 16:13 106 14.2

The stats available for Clarkson at NHL.com are certainly notable. Compared with his career stats, three numbers stand out: the goals, the shooting percentage, and the shot count. With 15 goals in 39 games, Clarkson would have to endure an incredible slump to avoid breaking his career high of 17 goals. That's an obvious plus. Clarkson's shooting percentage of 14.2% is also the highest of his career. That suggests he could definitely cool off at some point. It's far better than his 6.3% last season, certainly. Yet, his percentage has a range of 6% to 10.8% over his last four seasons, I'm not confident in thinking Clarkson is truly a 14% shooter. Still, he'd have to endure a big slump to see that drop to his career low 6%; so I doubt his shooting percentage will come crashing down.

The most encouraging number on this line is his shot count. Clarkson loves to shoot the puck (to a fault at times), and his 106 SOG is the third highest on the team. What's more interesting is the rate at which he's getting the puck on net.

SEASON

GP

SOG

SOG/GP

06-07

7

18

2.57

07-08

81

151

1.86

08-09

82

158

1.93

09-10

46

106

2.30

10-11

82

192

2.34

11-12

39

106

2.72

In comparison to his career, Clarkson's getting shots on net at a rate of approximately 2.72 shots per game. That's a higher rate than ever before in his career, even more so than during a 7 game stint back in 2006-07. It's the third highest shooting rate on the team behind Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Moreover, it's a rate that has been rising in each of his last four seasons. While Clarkson's shooting percentage may cool off, this is likely going to remain more consistent throughout the season. For better or worse, Clarkson loves to fire away when he's got the puck instead of looking for a pass. That's not going to change, so if he stays healthy, then he has a shot at breaking 200 shots. Whether that will lead to 20 goals (definitely possible) or his current pace of 31 (not quite so likely) remains to be seen.

In digging further into the ice time numbers at NHL.com, I also discovered that Peter DeBoer must appreciate what David Clarkson does on the ice to some level. After all, he's not getting stapled to the bench in a close third period. More importantly, DeBoer has given Clarkson more ice time per game than ever before in his career. Granted, Clarkson's now in the prime of his career. This is his fifth season in the NHL and he'll turn 28 in March. I doubt he's going to learn any new tricks like setting up plays, so the increased ice time is some evidence of earning and maintaining the coaches' favor.

SEASON

PP TOI/G

ES TOI/G

TOI/G

2007-08

0:33

11:27

12:01

2008-09

1:31

10:30

12:03

2009-10

2:22

12:04

14:26

2010-11

1:39

11:56

13:37

2011-12

3:07

13:06

16:13

Clarkson's overall time on ice per game certainly got a boost with his presence on the first power play unit. Whether or not he should be there is a bit of an open question given how bad the power play has been. He's usually in the center of the other team's box and somehow scored 5 goals and 2 assists (out of 4 total) in that position. He's not totally unproductive there; though shots have been rare from him. However, it's not just the power play. He also has received more ice time per game at even strength than ever before, a full 1:02 more than his previous high in 2009-10. That may really mean an extra shift or two, maybe three; but it's still another reason to believe Clarkson's having a good bounce-back season. After all, players who struggle don't see more minutes after a bad season.

Let's look at some of Clarkson's underlying stats at Behind the Net. It is here we can answer some deeper questions. Is Clarkson a positive possession player? Well, not really. Clarkson's on-ice Corsi rate at evens is -2.99, which is clearly not positive. However, we can take his zone starts into account. Clarkson has only started in the offensive zone 46.8% of the time this season, so his adjusted Corsi rate would increase to a slightly-better -1.46. It's still below zero, but he's not such a defensive liability that opponents constantly pick on him. That's something, I suppose, given his role on the team. He wasn't always holding that value; he was above zero in the middle of November. It's a bit of a downer to see that he went down in that regard, but he's not too far from getting back into better territory.

Does Clarkson play against tough competition? No, his Corsi Rel QoC is negative. That makes sense since he is a third line player. Has his responsibilities increased in terms of who he plays against? Not really. Last season, he was tied for eleventh among forwards on the team in Corsi Rel QoC with Rod Pelley. This season, he's tenth among forwards on the team in Corsi Rel QoC. His ranking goes up if we ignore Travis Zajac's 8 games and Vladimir Zharkov's 4 games; but that only places him eighth among all forwards. That still isn't a lot to boast. While Clarkson has received more minutes this season than in past seasons, he's not going up against better players on a regular basis. That's probably for the best for Clarkson, really.

How about on-ice and off-ice differentials, what has happened when Clarkson came on the ice at even strength? Per Behind the Net, good things happened in terms of shots, bad things happened in terms of goals. It's not good to see the GF/60 rate drop from 2.33 to 1.79 and the GA/60 rate go up from 2.64 to 2.87 when he's out there. In terms of shooting rates, it's much better: SA/60 has went down 1.3 and SF/60 has went up 1.2. That's not a huge improvement, but that's not bad. With respect to the goals, that could be a case of some bad fortune as his PDO is pretty low at 957. An improvement in either on-ice save percentage or on-ice shooting percentage would see that go up and help out the goal rates in my opinion.

So Clarkson has had a good first half of a season after a poor last season. There are still things about his game that rub me the wrong way. For starters, he's still taking far too many penalties. I understand he likes to play with a physical edge and there's some value in that in a bottom six role. For all of his toe drags and other affinity for flair moves, he can throw a pretty good check. Yet, he's got to be smarter in discipline. He does lead the Devils in penalties drawn at 18, which is good; just ignore for the moment that it leads to power plays. However, he also leads them in penalties taken with 13, which isn't good. Moreover, he's got five fighting majors among his 70 PIM. This team signed and has played Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen regularly, why is Clarkson dropping the gloves at all? Does he not know he's more valuable than those guys and shouldn't seek to spend that much time in the box? I get it, he doesn't want to back down from a challenge; but that's another area of discipline he could stand to learn.

Then there's the simple fact that he's a shot machine. With 15 goals, he's got a mere 4 assists. To put that in perspective, that is as many as Bryce Salvador, who has Colin White levels of offensive talent. Clarkson is clearly an offensive player, but he's got one real offensive dimension. He's not going to look to pass the puck even if it's a better option than what he's got. Sometimes, that's not a flaw. Clarkson's shot isn't terrible and a good shot on net is better than risking a tough pass that leads to a turnover in looking for a better one. Then again, sometimes he'll try to force his way into the slot or in a better position and then shoot - which is successful at times. Yet, there are some games where one has to wonder if Clarkson understands that offense is a team effort. He'll score goals, but don't expect him to set too many guys up. At this point of his career, he is who he is - and it's a big reason why I think he'll remain as a third line winger instead of a second line winger.

Nonetheless, Clarkson has played better than he had last season. He's certainly more productive and the numbers behind that suggest it's not just Clarkson getting lucky in these 39 games. Clarkson's generating more shots per game than ever, he's received a bump in ice time, and he's not getting rolled over regularly at even strength. It's a lot better than his 2010-11 season, but this has not a completely wonderful season by Clarkson. Clarkson's not going to be taking on tough competition any time soon, and he's not consistently winning those match-ups. He's very much a third line winger. He still could work on his discipline and his offensive game beyond shooting; I understand the latter may be unlikely to change, but the former can definitely be improved. Clarkson on the ice is better than Clarkson in the box, I just wish he'd get that through his head. Still, he's having a comeback season and it's been big for the Devils if only for the scoring depth he's provided. Overall, I'm glad the Devils didn't trade Clarkson last year and I'm happy to say that I was wrong in wishing so. Of course, now all Clarkson has to do is continue doing what he's doing for another 42 games and stay healthy. Good luck.

What do you think of Clarkson's season so far? While it's clear he's doing more than last season, is he meeting your expectations? What does Clarkson have to do in the second half of this season to make this a fully successful 2011-12 for him? What do you want to see Clarkson improve upon? Can he make those improvements? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on David Clarkson in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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