As the story of his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs rapidly unfolded like a tragicomedy, right wing David Clarkson
could have started asking a lot of questions that begin with why.
As in why did I sign to play in Toronto, one of the most demanding markets in the NHL? Or the reflective why can't it be like it was with the New Jersey Devils, where my role was defined, the results were positive, and mistakes, slumps and errors in judgment never burn a player publicly the way they do here?
Clarkson insists he didn't do that.
"Never," he said with a deadpanned look on his face at the start of training camp.
Could you have blamed him if he did? Last season was rough for Clarkson, who signed a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1, 2013.
He spent the first 10 games of the season watching because he was suspended for leaving the bench to join an altercation in a preseason game. It got worse from there.
Clarkson missed another 11 games because of injuries, was demoted to the fourth line, and finished the 2013-14 season with 11 points in 60 games.
That's one point for every $409,090.90 that he earned in actual salary ($4.5 million, according to CapGeek.com, of which all but $1 million is earned through signing bonuses). His salary-cap charge is $5.25 million.
"I think from the fans' standpoint and everybody else, obviously it was tough, but I wore that [Maple Leafs] jersey as a little boy and I didn't let anything written or said about me bother me," Clarkson said. "I didn't read it. I try not to pay attention to it. Is it tough? Yeah, because you hear about it. That's part of hockey, but I do not regret anything I did and I look forward for what's ahead for me."
That would be a fresh start without his problems from last season clouding the view of his teammates or Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle. Clarkson will try to win back the trust of the fans in Toronto with the full support of his peers and bosses.
He isn't off to the greatest start.
Clarkson started training camp with a minor injury, and he's currently out because of a broken orbital bone, an injury he sustained in a fight with Buffalo Sabres forward Cody McCormick this past Friday. He is, however, expected to return to practice by the end of the week and to be ready for the season-opener against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre on Oct. 8.
The injuries haven't changed Clarkson's mindset heading into the season.
"I was hitting that reset button and I'm still hitting it," Clarkson said Monday, according to the Toronto Sun.
Carlyle and Nonis are right behind him. Multiple times Carlyle has mentioned this season being a do-over for Clarkson.
"He's not the type of player we saw last year," Carlyle said. "Now, there are certain things that we think he can do to help himself and we're going to help him with, but he's a member of our hockey club, he's a Toronto Maple Leaf and we're going to provide him with the tools necessary to be David Clarkson, to make an impact for our hockey club."
To be fair, what else can Carlyle say about a player who is one season into a seven-year contract? Failing to support Clarkson publicly would likely create an even bigger controversy in Toronto than Clarkson did last season with his poor play.
But Carlyle and Nonis appear to be sincere in their support of Clarkson. It's unwavering, almost as if they've forgotten about his sins from last season.
They have repeatedly cited his history as a one-time 30-goal scorer (2011-12 season) and a forechecking, netfront forward with the Devils as reason enough to believe Clarkson will rebound this season.
"David Clarkson didn't turn into a bad hockey player overnight," Nonis said. "He had two very strong years prior to coming here. It looks like he's worked tremendously hard to come back and have a good year this year and he'll be given every opportunity to do that."
Carlyle has talked about trying to establish a top-nine group of forwards that can make up three viable scoring lines, something the Maple Leafs didn't have last season. Clarkson is supposed to be in the group and perhaps could start the season on the second line with Nazem Kadri and either Joffrey Lupul or James van Riemsdyk.
"I know [Clarkson], he got hurt a couple times last year and it was just a bit off in terms of getting into games, but he knows how good a hockey player he can be," Kadri said. "He can score goals. He can really contribute to this hockey team."
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said he could sense from the time he skated with Clarkson before training camp began that he was upbeat and ready to go.
"I think he's going to have a real good year for our team," Phaneuf said.
It certainly appears he's going to be given a long rope to redeem himself for what happened last season. It's up to Clarkson to make the questions stop, even if he's never been the one asking them.
"Last year was just something I can't explain to you," Clarkson said. "It was the toughest thing and I'm ready for what's ahead."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer