David Clarkson scored 30 goals last season, one of the more pleasant surprises for the New Jersey Devils. His 2011-12 season was his career high. In addition to setting a career season high in goals, he also peaked in assists with 16, points with 46, shots on net with 228, and shooting percentage in 13.0%. While the goal scoring wasn't as prolific in the 2012 playoffs, he remained productive with three goals and nine assists. It was a great season by any measure for the physical winger.
Last summer, I took a closer look at Clarkson's 33 goals between the 2011-12 season and the playoffs and concluded that while most were good, he did get quite a few favorable bounces. Based on my review of the videos of Clarkson scoring, he had six that I called "flukes," the kinds of goals that one really can't expect in the future. Combined with that and the fact he hit a career season high in shooting percentage when he never finished above 11% in his other four full seasons with the team, and I figured he wouldn't hit that plateau this season. Of course, there was the Incredibly Stupid Lockout and with a shortened season, it's unlikely that anyone will hit 30 goals, much less Clarkson. Still, the main point is that Clarkson did quite well to get as many goals as he did but we shouldn't expect so much from him.
Right now, Clarkson is making me look a bit foolish. Early in this 2013 season, Clarkson is the team's leader in goals with four, shots on net with 30, and points with eight. He's got a point in every game and he's been a very good fit on the second line at the right wing position. It helps he's playing with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus; so far he's been one of the team's best at driving the play at even strength. Given his 30 shots on net, he's usually the executor of said play. He's been the most consistently positive player on the Devils in January and has been named Devil of the Month. However, what would be reasonable to expect from him going forward? In order to figure that out, let's take a closer look at the points he has earned already.
Goal #1 - Date: 1/19 - Type: Wrist shot - Note: Through a screen - Video Link
Description: Clarkson starts off the play by getting the puck along the boards and accidentally tripping Mattias Tedenby. He passes it across to Patrik Elias, who lays it off for Clarkson at the top of the left circle. Clarkson fires one low and it beats Evgeni Nabokov through his five-hole. Brian Strait and/or Tedenby appeared to provide a screen which helped the effort.
Goal #2 - Date: 1/22 - Type: Wraparound attempt - Note: Power play goal, off a skate - Video Link
Description: A missed shot by Ilya Kovalchuk ended up behind the net. Clarkson went around the crease to Ilya Bryzgalov's right. His stick gets lost as Clarkson attempts to get the puck amid a scrum. Clarkson wins it behind the net, sweeps it around towards the net, and it caroms off Ruslan Fedotenko's skate blade and past Bryzgalov. This one was definitely a favorable bounce.
Goal #3 - Date: 1/27 - Type: Rebound - Note: 5-on-3 power play goal - Video Link
Description: Clarkson drops down to the crease as Patrik Elias has the puck. Elias' attempt at a pass is blocked, so he angles it closer to the net. Clarkson and Travis Zajac both jam at it and Clarkson knocks it in for the conversion.
Goal #4 - Date: 1/29 - Type: Deflection - Note: Power play goal - Video Link
Description: Zidlicky gets the puck from Elias at the right point. He fires a shot that Clarkson tipped in the slot to beat Tuukka Rask.
Assist #1 - Date: 1/25 - Type: Primary to Elias, deflection - Note: 5-on-3 situation - Video Link
Description: Ilya Kovalchuk feeds Marek Zidlicky at the center point, who then takes a shot on net. The shot hits and/or deflects off Clarkson, and Elias slams in the rebound for the goal.
Description: As the Devils cycled in the right corner of Montreal's end of the rink, Clarkson wins the puck and sees Fayne wide open. He fires a diagonal pass to him at the point. Fayne fires and Elias gets his stick up enough to re-direct it past Price.
Assist #3 - Date: 1/27 - Type: Secondary to Elias - Note: Even strength - Video Link
Description: Elias and Clarkson race to the goal line and Elias touches up to prevent an icing call against New Jersey. Just after the touch, Elias banked a pass off the boards to Clarkson to escape Josh Gorges. The puck was bouncing but Clarkson settled it and passed it back to Elias across the endboards and past Gorges. Elias saw Zubrus, fed him, and he shot it in.
Description: Clarkson wins the puck on a dump-in behind the net. He gets around Andy MacDonald but loses control when Mark Streit meets him before the slot. He swings his stick but whiffs so the puck drifts to the slot. A storming Adam Henrique took it and roofed one past Nabokov.
The kinds of goals and assists that he has so far this season don't really suggest sustainability in my opinion. His goals can be summed up as a shot through a screen, a jam at the net, a wraparound attempt assisted by a defenders' skates, and a deflection. I can see that shot and that jam play happening again, not so much about the deflections or getting a good bounce off an opposing player. I can say the same about his assists. While he had two legit passes that became goals, his first of the season came from a literal and favorable bounce off his body and his one to Henrique really wasn't much of a pass - again, Clarkson whiffed as the puck sailed ahead. Needless to say, Clarkson's been getting good puck luck - and that doesn't last forever.
However, I don't think this is a "feast or famine" situation for the winger. We can't discount his place in the lineup. He's been with Elias and Zubrus for most of the first six games this season. This isn't like last season where Clarkson didn't really have much help on the third line until they acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky. He's got better linemates and more minutes, playing about 17-19 minutes per night. Should Clarkson stay in his current spot on the second line and the first power play unit, he'll have plenty of opportunities to contribute on offense. And he's currently doing the one thing that does just that: take shots. He's never had an aversion to taking shots before and he's clearly finding the space to do so. He's currently averaging five per game. That definitely won't last, but it's not unreasonable to think he can average three per game - especially with his larger role. I think that as long as Clarkson keeps firing away and he plays on the top two lines, he'll definitely put up points. I just don't think he'll stay hot and ride that to 18 goals, which is approximately how many one would score if they potted in 30 goals in 82 games.
I will point out one interesting tidbit. While the events that ended up on the scoresheet involved some good luck; Clarkson could stand to have some better luck in the future at even strength. Half of Clarkson's points and only one of his goals came in a 5-on-5 situation, after all. Take a look at his PDO, the summation of the on-ice shooting and save percentage by the team when a player is on the ice at even strength. Over time, this tends to gravitate to around 1000. A player with a high PDO has enjoyed fortunate team play at evens and a player with a low PDO has not. According to Behind the Net, Clarkson has the third lowest PDO on the team at 910. While this is a shortened season, that should be higher. It'll likely come from improved goaltending when he's on the ice (88.2% is unsustainably bad), but don't be surprised when his even strength scoring increases during the season. If nothing else, it's an interesting tidbit.
Nevertheless, we all should be pleased with Clarkson so far this season. The hot start in production has grabbed deserved praise, even though he's had quite a few breaks among them already. That just means that the streak in points and the rate of scoring likely won't last. Therefore, I don't think we should expect or demand that he produce like last season or better. We should expect him to be an important contributor, however. That's based on his high rate of shooting, the fact he's been a very positive possession player, and he's played very well at evens with Elias and Zubrus. Those are better indicators of his importance, and should they continue, the points will come. How many remains to be seen, but that's why they play the games. When that's done, then is only the appropriate time to worry about his future, his next contract, and his actual value to this organization.