a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Thursday, 9 May 2013

05/09/13 Hired Help: David Clarkson

Perhaps the most talked about free agent forward in the upcoming NHL off season is David Clarkson. The 6'1", 200 pound right winger is coming off a 15 goal season in 48 games, and has scored 45 in his last 128 outings. The Oilers will make a pitch for him, but how hard should they go?

The 2011-12 NHL season was Clarkson's fifth full year in the league, and it was also the first time he made any really significant noise. Prior to that season his career high in goals was 17, he scored 62 goals in 298 games (0.21 per game), and he had never topped 32 points. Clarkson's stats column of choice was PIMs (see: face punching), which is still true to this day.

The difference is that Clarkson is now a scorer. He potted 30 goals in 2011-12, and another 15 in an abbreviated 2012-13 season. Over those seasons he has had a reasonable shooting percentage of 11%, but should fans be worried that Clarkson is suddenly such a sniper?

All of the underlying numbers are good. Clarkson had the best Corsi of any Devils forward this past season and he's been reasonably strong in that regard for the last three years. Since 2010-11 he has finished his even strength shifts in the offensive zone more often than he started there. In his breakout 2011-12 season, Clarkson picked up 30 points at even strength, including 22 goals.

His shot output went from 192 in 2010-11 (2.3 per game) to 228 in 2011-12 (2.9 per game) and finally spiked in 2013 at 180 shots in just 48 games (3.75 per game). This coincides with a gradual increase in average ice time (from 13:37 per game in 2010-11 to 17:35 in 2013).

The trouble for Clarkson on a team like the Oilers would be his powerplay time, as he saw 3:03 with the man advantage for the Devils in 2011-12 and scored 16 PP points. Fully one-third of Clarkson's points in 2013 came on the powerplay, and he had 3:33 of average ice time. In Edmonton that ice time would certainly drop in favor of the young guns the team has collected. That could negatively affect Clarkson's production, but it doesn't change the fact that he's a good option at even strength, which is where the Oilers need the most help outside the top line.

And what about all those penalty minutes Clarkson collects? He's certainly a physical player, amassing 84 hits in 2013 and 169 in 2011-12. But the really impressive stat is that Clarkson has drawn more penalties than he has taken (per 60 minutes of ice time) in each of the last two years.

There's little doubt that David Clarkson was cruising to a hefty payday as a UFA this summer, but then his scoring went ice cold from mid-February onward. He scored ten goals in his first 14 games and just five more after that. But he was still shooting the puck 3.5 times per game. Could that unlucky drought have shaved a few dollars off his contract?

In a lean UFA year Clarkson will be highly sought after, and it wouldn't be surprising to see his $2.66 million cap hit double in a bidding war. Term on the deal is going to be interesting, as Clarkson is 29 years old. A five year pact at $5 million per would probably look quite unflattering in the last year or two of the deal. This is the player's chance at a big ticket retirement contract so the highest bidder is likely to get their man.

Despite everything - all the underlying possession numbers, the scoring, the PIMs - it's the contract that could make teams shy away. Although Clarkson is a good player right now, one has to wonder about his performance over the life of the deal as he goes over the hill to the wrong side of 30. If the price gets too outrageous, the Oilers should let this one go.

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