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How David Clarkson was more effective than Wendel Clark

The David Clarkson era in Toronto got off to a horrendous start. The Maple Leafs inked the Toronto native to an eye-popping seven-year, $36.75-million contract last summer, and the first year of the deal saw the 29-year-old miss the season’s first 10 games for leaving the bench to fight during a preseason game, total just five goals and 11 points in 60 games, and shoulder a life’s worth of criticism from fans and media alike.

Clarkson’s arrival with the Maple Leafs franchise was buoyed by comparisons to Wendel Clark. The former would even wear No. 71, as an homage of sorts to Clark’s iconic No. 17 sweater. Although Clark’s tenure with the Maple Leafs was a largely injury-filled union, his status as an all-time fan favorite was written in the blood of opponents he seemingly squashed with his fists.

The expectations for Clarkson, however surrounded in myth they may have been, were unattainable from the onset.

Renown for his devotion to the wrist shot, Clark was a 14.4% shooter for his career. Had he been healthy through his prime, Clark probably would have eclipsed 50 goals in a season or two. While Clarkson came with a reputation for mixing it up and playing a physical game, he was hardly the offensive threat Clark had been. Clarkson scored 30 goals once with the Devils in 2011-12, but his 13.2% shooting mark on the campaign belied his true offensive touch.

Clarkson got lucky, and he got paid for it. Handsomely.

Numbers offer hope for Clarkson

Advanced analytics, like Corsi and Fenwick had been relatively kind to Clarkson through parts of his time in New Jersey. Data from Clark’s era does not exist, at least not yet, so it’s difficult to compare the two without leaning on traditional counting stats. There is one avenue of analytics for which we do have data for both players, though, and the results we can draw from it tell a surprising story.

David Clarkson appears to be a far more effective player than Clark in one area… Punch Corsi.

Punch Corsi, for the uninitiated, is a measure of punch attempts [Punch Corsi Number = (Punches on Target For + Missed Punches For + Blocked Punches Against ) – (Punches on Target Against + Missed Punches Against + Blocked Punches For)]. You can learn more about the stat here.

Like Corsi, Punch Corsi seeks to tell more of the story than straight wins and losses can.

Clark was a notorious scrapper in his day, willing to take on players much bigger than himself regularly. He even took down former heavyweight champion Bob Probert on occasion. Clarkson is hardly considered a heavyweight, but his size and strength have enabled him to hold his own with some of the game’s most notable punchers.

Clarkson vs. Clark: a Punch Corsi study

Using a random 10-fight sample from each player’s fight card tells a vastly different story than what most longtime Maple Leafs fans would expect. Clarkson tends to drive the fight, while Clark’s reliance on “cocaine fists” often led to him giving up more punch attempts than he delivered.

Player Punch attempts for Punch attempts against Punch Corsi #
Wendel Clark 95 99 -4
David Clarkson 99 76 23

Problems with analysis

Like comparing offensive totals across eras, there are many obstacles to drawing a reliable conclusion. The “cocaine fist” era of hockey fights saw combatants squaring off and slamming as many punches into one another’s face as quickly as possible. Take this bout between Clark and Rick Tocchet, which was included in our random sample. It’s just fists flying with little regard for where they land.

It’s a stark comparison to the twisting and tugging of today where pugilists tend to calculate their throws a little more conservatively. See Clarkson vs. Zenon Konopka, for example.

Another issue is the quality of competition each player has faced. Clarkson has fought some legitimate heavys like Kenopka and Jay Rosehill, but he tends to stick to his own light heavyweight division with opponents like Wayne Simmonds, Brandon Dubinsky, and current teammate Dion Phaneuf. Clark fought some of the toughest players the game has ever known, like Probert and Marty McSorely, on numerous occasions.

Clark’s tendency to step up to far bigger players, and often give up a great number of punch attempts, is somewhat offset by his fights which essentially consist of him mounting near-defenseless players lying on the ice and punching holes through their skulls. This 1988 “fight” between Clark and Bob Brooke of the Minnesota North Stars sees Brooke fail to land a punch while being assaulted by Clark.

This kind of behavior today could possibly result in a jail sentence for a guy like Clarkson, which would be a welcomed alternative to playing out the remainder of his deal for many Leafs fans.

In conclusion

Things may not be as bad as they seem with Clarkson, at least in terms of punching prowess. You might think this doesn’t matter, but it’s Toronto we’re talking about and Randy Carlyle is willing to ice a whole line of goons, so Clarkson offers more value than his woeful 2013-14 season would indicate.

While Clarkson’s effectiveness as a player seems to have stayed behind in New Jersey with his place in the Devils’ system, he’s still a more than adequate puncher.

Clark’s reputation as a Maple Leafs legend isn’t going anywhere. His knockouts and epic fights tell a great story, but not the whole story. The numbers don’t lie… Clarkson stands up to No. 17 in at least one regard.

How David Clarkson was more effective than Wendel Clark
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