Before the puck dropped to open the Conference Finals, speculation had already begun swirling around the Senators offseason. Fresh from a resounding defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Senators cleaned out their lockers and management held season-ending press conferences. It was almost assured the team was going to have a different look come training camp: with seven unrestricted free agents and eight others headed to restricted free agency, the group seemed unlikely to return entirely intact. Some questions were answered before the Cup finalists were determined: Guillaume Latendresse was informed by the team they would not be bringing him back, and Sergei Gonchar was dealt to the Dallas Stars for a sixth-round pick that became unconditional when they re-upped the veteran defender on a two-year deal. Other questions will long be fettered about before fans have any clear sense of an answer.
One of those questions that is sure to surround the team throughout the offseason is the need for quality scoring talent. The team had a startling season, battling through injuries to seemingly critical pieces on the roster and winning a playoff round- the first since the 2006-2007 run to the Cup Finals. The endurance of the team's depth players, buttressed by phenomenal goaltending, changed the dialogue around this team heading into the offseason. The offseason already shows promise of being a more eventful one for the Senators than the previous one. After all, the team is heading into the third season of Senate Reform, which was tagged as being a three-year rebuild. Moreover, with Ottawa looking well ahead of schedule and still on-budget (a rare phenomenon in a government city), expectations are clearly on the rise. Bryan Murray joined in on the hoopla, terming the Senators "contenders" going into next season, even though his coach threw some cold water on the suggestion.
Still, Murray admitted that his focus, as it seemingly has been for eons now, is in acquiring a top-six scoring winger, perhaps one who can play shotgun as Jason Spezza drives up the middle of the ice. Ever since Murray admitted the team would prefer to score more goals than their ugly 27th overall standing this past season, speculation has abounded. There are the familiar names, long rumoured to be a focus of the Senators front office (Bobby Ryan), the names that probably aren't worth spilling much ink on, be it virtual or real (I'm a doubter that Rick Nash has changed his mind), and lastly, perhaps most prominently, the players for whom one would have to give up nothing except currency. No, not offering Nikita Filatov a contract, but free agency.
One name that has been bandied about with some regularity over the past few weeks and thus deserves some attention and analysis is impending unrestricted free agent forward David Clarkson. Clarkson is finishing this third contract in the NHL and his most profitable--over the past three years, the Devils forward earned either two or three million dollars, working out to an annual average cap hit just a shade under 2.7 million.
Clarkson has traveled a fairly long road to find good success in the NHL. Though perhaps a few years earlier than fellow UFA Pascal Dupuis, Clarkson's track to a big payday in free agency has hardly been a straight and linear one. Beginning in junior, Clarkson bounced around somewhat before finding a permanent home with the Kitchener Rangers. He responded to increased responsibility through each of his three seasons with increased production, after the Rangers won the Memorial Cup in his first season there. Playing as an overager in 2004-2005, he shone, posting 54 points in 31 games. His coach was Pete DeBoer. Clarkson, eligible to be drafted the first time in 2002, worked his way into the view of NHL scouts after his draft eligibility, and the Devils signed him as a free agent forward following his very productive final season with Kitchener.
Clarkson started off his professional career with back-to-back campaigns in the AHL, where he was a strong contributor, putting up 34 and 38 points in 56 and 67 games respectively. In his second year, he made enough of an impression to earn a 7-game cup of coffee in the big leagues, where he hardly disappointed: he scored three goals in that time.
Earning a spot in the NHL the following year, Clarkson put up 21 points in nearly a full season of action. His 3 goals in the previous year's stint might have seemed a slight shadow, as he only scored 9 in 81. However, his presence on the ice, coupled with some tertiary offence, earned him a two-year renewal at 875k. Clarkson's greatest asset was not in scoring goals, but providing a physical presence, playing the role of power forward and forechecking aggressively. It's a role he is well built to play, standing over six feet and sturdy at 200 pounds. Still, his development came slowly. He scored 17 the next year, but only 11 the one after, hampered by injuries and kept to 46 regular season games. Clarkson's true breakout career came at 27 years old, when he exploded for a thirty-goal year on a New Jersey Devils squad that pushed its way to its first Cup Finals appearance since their successful 2003 run. Clarkson, though he only scored 3 goals in 24 playoff games, was a vital part of the team. The man behind the bench was a familiar face: his old Junior coach, Pete DeBoer. Much fuss was made around the league about Clarkson's upstart year, entrusted with ice time, responsibility and trust from a coach who knew him well. A year later, he's headed to free agency.
So, should the Senators be interested?
On the surface, almost certainly yes. David Clarkson, if he were interested in joining the Senators, would instantly improve the roster. He's hard to get off the puck, fights hard in the corners and is a powerful, sturdy presence in front of the opposing net. He's a good power forward, who brings physicality and offence, without slowing down his teammates. The Senators with David Clarkson would be a better team. Even if the 30-goal year was somewhat of a mirage, which we'll consider in depth further on, he would be a helpful asset for the Senators. At the very least, he would be a much more viable option on the first powerplay unit to park in front of the net than Chris Neil.
Get below the surface, however, and it becomes a far more complicated question, to which I say no, with a few cowardly caveats.
The Free Agent Market:
As it has been for the last several seasons, the NHL Free Agent market is devoid of (m)any star-caliber names. The result is that the relatively big fish in the proverbial pond come across as sharks. Their market value is hugely inflated over sober estimates of the player's worth. That is and has been the nature of unrestricted free agency for much of the salary cap era, so long as one is willing to excuse the rare phenomenon that was the Parise/Suter circus. Players headed towards free agency suddenly see themselves getting paid as something more than they've ever been: Tyler Bozak becomes a true top-line center, Pascal Dupuis becomes a half-decade younger, and David Clarkson becomes a power forward in the mold of the league's best. The list this year is essentially one of middling-to-decent players, sure to make off gangbusters, and an agglomeration of players that make some of us think "hey! They're still playing! Good for you, Jamie Langenbrunner."
Lou Lamoriello has already stated he is not interested in getting into a bidding war with his own free agents. That makes sense--the Devils head into the offseason with 4 RFAs currently playing in the NHL, 7 more in the system, as well as 8 UFAs currently not in the NHL and 8 more who are. That increases the likelihood a player like David Clarkson is headed to free agency--a number of teams will rightly come calling. However, it also increases the likelihood Clarkson earns more than he's objectively worth.
How do we determine what that is? Well, in 426 regular season games, Clarkson has 170 points, 97 of which are goals. Granted, he was a slow starter, seemingly hitting stride-- or peaking, for that matter --in his fifth NHL season. At 29 years old, a four-year contract would carry Clarkson through the remainder of his prime years. As a result, he might be looking for a slightly longer deal that would guarantee some security. Clarkson is making 2.7 million dollars now, a contract that wasn't looking very good when he put up 18 points with 12 goals as the Devils missed the playoffs in 2010-2011. However, he started punching above his pay-grade with the 30-goal season the next year and now is due for a pay increase.
As a player in the midst of his prime, fresh off back-to-back strong seasons, with a physical net-crashing game, David Clarkson is about to see a prolonged spike in his net worth. At a year younger than Clarkson is now, Ville Leino was signed to a deal with an annual cap hit of 4.5 million dollars at this time last year. Of course, Darcy Regier has since been mocked by many on social media and in the mainstream press for the ludicrosity of the deal, but it still set somewhat of a market precedent. At 28 years of age, Leino had never come close to Clarkson's thirty-goal season. Another big man, Ryan Malone, had similar numbers at 29 years old, when he had his negotiating rights traded to the Lightning and signed a seven-year deal worth 31.5 million dollars-- a 4.5AAV. Will it surprise anyone if David Clarkson makes more than both of these players? With most other 30-goal scorers heavily on the wrong side of 30 years of age, Clarkson is the biggest fish in this year's free agent pond.
Can he repeat?
David Clarkson, for much of his career, has maintained a shooting percentage that roughly hovers on or below 10%. He had one season (his worst) where he shot 6.3% and one season (his best, unsurprisingly) where he fired the puck on goal with a 13.2% chance of crossing the red line. This year, he was a step closer to his career average, shooting 8.3%, but still managing to score 15 goals in 48 games. Expanded over 82 games, Clarkson was on track to score somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals. That should give us a sense of Clarkson's upper ceiling- with a lucky season, he might hit thirty goals again, but is a safe bet to come within a few of that mark. If Corsi Quality of Competition tells part of the story of Clarkson's phenomenal 2011-2012 season, then he was not matched up against the best forwards the other team had to offer. Indeed, of forwards to play in over half of New Jersey's games that year, only Jacob Josefson, Ryan Carter, Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen faced off against easier matchups. The trust instilled in him by his coach from Junior was not that he might throw him into any situation, but a faith that Clarkson might take advantage of weak opposition. It was a good bet for DeBoer, one that paid dividends to the tune of a thirty-goal season.
Clarkson as a Senator:
If the Senators managed to interest Clarkson in signing with the team, they certainly would have won a bidding war to do so. The critical question management will ask themselves in this regard is where Clarkson fits in the long-term plan of this team, and if he is worth the exorbitant price tag. At 29 years of age, Clarkson could still be a contributor as the team builds towards the future, even if they aren't a contender, just yet. However, the money is where everyone should take pause. Where will he fit in the lineup? Senators fans squabbled amongst ourselves for years over a somewhat similar player in Mike Fisher. Fisher's output was comparable to Clarkson's, if slightly less, but his 4.2M AAV made him a constant topic of conversation and debate. Clarkson, in theory, could play on Jason Spezza's wing and be the player some of us still hold out little bits of hope that Colin Greening can become. However, "let's see what he can do with Jason Spezza" is not reason enough to justify paying a player lots of money. Instead, it's reason to sign a player with less and see if the team can maximize his value. After all, he could just as quickly end up playing anywhere else in the lineup, at which point the Senators may begin to regret his onerous cost.
The Senators, as Bryan Murray has freely admitted, do not hold next season's $64.3M budget as their spending limit. Instead, the internal budget is somewhere lower than that. Thus, the Senators have to make very clear off-season priorities. From the sound of Bryan Murray's closing press conference and the obvious needs of this team, it would seem they already have those priorities.
Ottawa needs an elite scoring winger. The options are to hold out hope that one of the prospects turns into that player, or the team assesses that is unlikely and packages a number of prospects and draft picks for a player who can play that role starting next season.
With contracts to key RFA's coming due in the next few seasons and a stringent internal salary cap, where does paying David Clarkson his big free agent payday fit? It probably doesn't.
The Senators can and will do more than one thing in any given off-season. Signing David Clarkson doesn't make it impossible to trade for an elite scoring winger. However, the team's blueline is going to need some work in coming years. Prospects currently in the system might not satisfy new expectations. Without knowing exactly where the team's internal payroll maxes out, it's difficult to say what the team is completely capable of doing or affording. However, dishing out a contract that could easily pass $5M AAV is not a good value move for the organization. Why would the team invest so heavily in a free agent signing who might score thirty goals, but just as likely may not hit that point again? Logic and patience indicate the Senators are better served sticking to script, seeing what they have in goal-scoring after another off-season from prospects like Matt Puempel, Stefan Noesen and Mark Stone. David Clarkson is not the piece that will vault the Senators into conversations of Cup contention. A player who could end up chipping in secondary scoring from the team's third line is not worth a five million dollar- or more -investment.
That is, at the end of the day, the problem with speaking of the Senators as being Cup contenders: it leads to a dialogue focused on which "one piece" will bring the Senators that next step. The Senators might have won a round in the playoffs in spite of key players spending more time in the doctor's office than on the ice, but need to aim higher. They must, and surely have, set priorities. First and foremost, Ottawa needs an elite scoring winger. David Clarkson isn't that player. If Bryan Murray is going to take a big bite out of his internal budget, one can't help but hope he punches a little higher than the biggest fish in this year's free agent pond.