Courted by a number of other teams as the NHL’s free-agent bonanza unfolded, David Clarkson knew deep down there was really only one place he wanted play.
The Toronto native joined his hometown Maple Leafs on Friday, inking a lucrative contract with the club he cheered for as youngster.
“As it was getting down to the end there were three or four (teams) where I was kicking back and forth,” Clarkson said at Air Canada Centre. “At the end of the day I think in my heart this is where I wanted to be.”
Raised in Toronto’s west end, Clarkson’s return home didn’t come cheap for the Maple Leafs, who will pay the 29-year-old a reported US$36.75 million over the next seven seasons.
“It’s an honour to be here,” Clarkson added. “I wore that jersey as a kid. I was a big Leafs fan when I was little so it’ll be pretty special to put it on.
“It’s definitely big to my dad. He raised us as Leafs fans, he bought us all our first Leafs jerseys so it’s definitely big to me and my family.”
Apart from adding Clarkson, Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis also re-signed first-line centre Tyler Bozak to a five-year deal worth a reported $21 million.
“We’re pretty happy. Our top nine (forwards), I think, will be pretty competitive,” said Nonis, who also acquired centre Dave Bolland from Chicago at Sunday’s NHL draft. “And our fourth line will be very hard to play against. I can tell you (Leafs coach Randy Carlyle) is happy with the options that we have right now, in a lot of different areas.”
In Clarkson, one of the biggest free agents on this year’s market, the Maple Leafs get a gritty, hard-nosed winger.
“I play a style of hockey where I try and come out every night and wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s just the type of player I am,” said Clarkson, who added he owned a Wendel Clark jersey when he was a kid. “I try and do different little things, whether it’s scoring or hitting or pressure. Every game you go on that ice you need to play well, you need to do something. That’s my plan.
“Every night I’m going to put the hard hat on and go to work.”
The Maple Leafs, who suffered a memorable collapse in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Boston Bruins, had already bolstered their goaltending by trading for Jonathan Bernier, who signed a two-year deal with Toronto on Friday.
The seven-year term given to Clarkson is uncharacteristic of the Maple Leafs, but Nonis said the big forward would have gone elsewhere had the length of the deal been shorter.
“I believe he has a lot of good years left in him,” Nonis said.
Toronto cleared salary cap space to make Friday’s moves by buying out centre Mikhail Grabovski and defenceman Mike Komisarek. The Leafs entered unrestricted free agency with the second-most available money under the cap and the ability to spend up to the $64.3-million limit.
Grabovski had four years remaining on his $21.5-million deal and cost the Maple Leafs $5.5 million per season against the NHL salary cap. The Komisarek buyout saves the Leafs $4.5 million by removing the final season of his five-year deal from their cap.
Bozak, who had 12 goals and 16 assists last season, will take up $4.2 million a year on his deal that linemate Phil Kessel praised by writing on Twitter: “My buddy is back leaf nation.”
Nonis said he talked to Bozak’s camp two days ago, but woke up Friday unsure of how things would play out. The deal was sealed after Nonis made an offer around noon which he called “basically the most we could do.”
“To his credit, Bozie wanted to stay here,” said the GM, who added that Bozak “maybe left some money on the table” from other teams looking for his services.
Clarkson will count $5.25 million against the cap while adding size on right wing. The six-foot-one, 200-pound power forward had 15 goals and nine assists last season for the Devils and scored 30 in 2011-12.
Clarkson, who got calls from Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf and defenceman John-Michael Liles welcoming him to Leaf Nation, said he isn’t worried about the increased attention and pressure of playing in one of the league’s biggest markets.
“My job is on the ice. I’m going to go out there every night and I’m going to give you everything I have,” Clarkson said. “Am I perfect? No, but I’m going to go out there every night and play my game.”
Notes: Nonis said the team did not pursue former Florida Panthers forward Stephen Weiss because they felt Bozak “was a better fit.” … The Leafs did talk to former Kings defenceman Rob Scuderi but didn’t make an offer. Scuderi, instead, told them he was looking to sign in the U.S. closer to where he had a home. He went on to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. … Toronto also signed tough guy Frazer McLaren to a two-year deal worth $1.4 million. McLaren had 102 penalty minutes, three goals and two assists in 35 games last season. … To round out the day, the Maple Leafs also signed forward Trevor Smith, as well as defencemen T.J. Brennan and Kevin Marshall.