Kolupanowich: Late Bloomer David Clarkson Becoming A Top Power Forward

David Clarkson has been using his hands for more than just fighting this season. (The West End/Flickr)

Of the 36 players to have hit the 25-goal plateau so far this season, perhaps the most surprising name is that of New Jersey Devils right wing David Clarkson.

The 27-year-old Toronto native is quietly having a career year and, despite being a relatively late bloomer, is turning into one of the top power forwards in the NHL.

He may not be the fastest or most skilled and he gets the majority of his chances through hard word, grit and determination, but there he is, going goal-for-goal with New Jersey’s captain and $100-million man, Ilya Kovalchuk. He is tied with Zach Parise for second on the Devils with 27 goals, just two behind leader Kovalchuk.

While not overly big at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Clarkson has the ability to use his frame to protect the puck in the dirty areas. “His best asset is his willingness to battle around the front of the net,” Rich Chere, who covers the Devils for the Star-Ledger, said of Clarkson’s importance to the team. “More underrated is his ability to win battles for pucks along the end boards. Clarkson often comes out with the puck from the corners and behind the net, holding off opposing defenders.”

Clarkson has kept his game simple in the past, playing to his strengths and not trying to do too much. But his skills have improved greatly. “Clarkson has noticeably improved his game through hard work. His stick handling is better and he has added to his skills, not just relying on his toe drag or wrap around,” Chere said. With more in his repertoire, Clarkson now has more ways to score.

Clarkson improved during his first two seasons, but an injury-plagued 2009-10 season halted his development and last season saw him record just 12 goals and 18 points in the full 82-game schedule. Now when he hits the ice, he knows he can score and have a positive impact on the outcome of the game. “He has confidence that was missing under John MacLean and Jacques Lemaire. He played for Pete DeBoer in junior hockey and that familiarity has helped,” Chere said.

DeBoer was Clarkson’s coach with the Kitchener Rangers from 2002 through 2005 and he helped the power forward transform into a 30-goal scorer in junior and now it looks as though he may reach that mark in the NHL.

With confidence and trust from his coach, Clarkson is now more than just a third line grinder. He plays a lot on the second line and the top power play unit; he is averaging a career high 16:20 minutes played per game, with 3:02 of that coming on the power play, just the second time in his career he has played over 2:00 with the man advantage. That extra time has had a huge impact as the seven power play goals he’s scored are just three fewer than his career total before the season started.

Clarkson is playing a tough all-around game this year, leading the Devils with 146 hits and 116 PIM, but that is nothing new. Clarkson has always played with an edge, recording 21 and 20 fights in his first two seasons, but he has reeled in that temper. This year he is on pace for just nine, saving his hands more for work in front of the net.

His 27 goals are 10 more than his previous high set in 2008-09 and he is on pace to double that number. That’s not bad at all considering he went undrafted and was signed as a free agent on Aug. 12, 2005 coming out of junior. Clarkson spent almost all of his first two seasons in the American League with the Albany/Lowell Devils, save for a seven-game call up at the end of 2006-07 and earning a full-time spot on the club in ’07-08.

He has always scrapped for every inch of ice he gets and is rising quickly among the ranks of the league’s top power forwards. “I’d say he is among the top five or six right now,” Chere said. “He is not in Milan Lucic’s class yet, but is heading that way.”

Clarkson is currently in the middle of the three-year deal with a cap hit of $2,666,667. He may not have played to expectations last season, but he is looking like a bargain this year. He is one of just three players — Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell and Lucic of Boston are the others — to have over 20 goals and 100 PIM so far in 2011-12.

The futures of team cornerstones Parise and Martin Brodeur are uncertain, but at least the Devils can take comfort in knowing they have Clarkson who will be able to provide the team with consistent grit, hard work and secondary scoring for a while.

-Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor

@TimKolupan_

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