Circle back to July 5 and two of the names who led most peoples' free-agent headlines were power forwards David Clarkson and Nathan Horton, both signed to similar seven-year deals worth around $37 million apiece.
They were mega-investments. But in an oddity, neither player has played a game yet -- Horton is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and Clarkson is sitting a 10-game suspension for an ill-advised decision to leave the bench during a preseason brawl.
As the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets meet up Friday night in Columbus, one of the two players finally gets to join the party: Clarkson has served his suspension and is awfully eager to begin his Maple Leafs career. So eager, well, that he showed up so early for practice Thursday at the team’s facility in suburban Toronto, that he was left waiting outside a locked dressing room. Nobody was in the building yet.
"It was funny, kind of like a kid’s first day of school waiting for the bus," Clarkson said, laughing, during a post-practice chat Thursday with ESPN.com.
I relayed to Clarkson that playing on the radio in my car on route to practice that morning was John Fogerty’s "Centerfield," its catchy refrain humming, "Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today/Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today."
"That is how I feel," Clarkson smiled in response.
Signed to a seven-year, $36.75 million deal (he left money on the table in Edmonton), the former New Jersey Devils winger came home to Toronto to fulfill a dream. Having to sit out the 10 opening games was a nightmare.
"It’s tough when you go through something like that," he said. "But when the team is finding a way to win, it makes it easier. I’m just excited to be back, to be just a piece of the puzzle. We've got a great locker room in here. I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead."
While Clarkson’s demeanor screamed giddiness, across the phone line on the same day was the sound of a cheerful, yet more subdued, Horton. Although he’s on schedule while recovering from surgery, he’s still far from lacing up his skates for his new team,.
"It’s been a slow process, just like I knew it would be coming in [that] it would take a long time," the former Boston Bruins winger told ESPN.com. "Every day I do my rehab. It’s not as quick as I’d like. But I want to come back 100 percent so I don’t ever have a problem with it ever again."
Horton relayed that he’s scheduled for a CT scan in early November, which he hopes will reveal that his shoulder if fully healed, and thus green light his next step in recovery.
"We’re still aiming for December or January [return], somewhere around there," Horton said.
In the meantime, Horton has been in the unusual position of trying to integrate himself with a new team, new coaching staff and new system, while having yet to put on skates.
"It’s been a little different," he said. "But I've been doing my rehab at the rink and hanging with the guys a lot. I try to hang out with them as much as possible as try to get to know them. It’s hard, because when you’re on the ice, that’s when you really get to know someone. For me, I don’t get that opportunity right now. But I’m trying to make the most of my opportunity off the ice. ...
"I'm in every meeting, every video session, I try to do as much as I can to learn the system. I’m getting all my meetings in," he said, chuckling. "It’s been a little tough, but trying to do the best I can with it."
Normally, when a player is injured long-term, he’s out of sight and out of mind, most coaches preferring it that way so teammates focus on who’s in the room and not who’s missing. But in this case, the Jackets have done everything they can to keep Horton involved, even bringing him on a road trip, though he’s not close to returning.
"He's done a great job integrating himself with his teammates," Jackets general manager Jarko Kekalainen told ESPN.com. "And even more than that, with the community and the fans, he's been amazing. He's had a tremendous attitude."
When you're the GM, watching your prized July acquisition still sitting out is tough, but in Kekalainen’s case, it was part of the deal.
"We knew the situation going in," he said. "We made a seven-year commitment to him, we’re not worried about two months. ...
"We’re anxiously looking forward to him playing for us, he addresses specific needs of ours."
You can just imagine the reaction of Leafs GM Dave Nonis in preseason when Clarkson left the bench to defend teammate Phil Kessel, who was jumped by Sabres tough guy John Scott. In a sport where many rules are gray, this one was black and white: automatic 10 games. Not only did it deprive Nonis of his top summer signing, but it forced the Leafs into the kind of early-season, salary-cap mathematical gymnastics that you’d rather not have to face.
Not only did the Leafs survive the whole thing, they won seven of 10 games without Clarkson in the lineup, even if those games weren't exactly pieces of art.
"I don’t think we’ll critique the seven wins as being highlights of Maple Leaf history, but they’re seven wins nonetheless," Nonis told ESPN.com. "Give the guys credit, they were scratching and clawing to find ways to win, not just with David out but with others as well. Pocketing those points has been beneficial; we’re going to need them as we move along."
Starting Friday night, Nonis finally gets to see his prized free agent in action. And the Leafs GM believes everything was done to keep him as fully integrated as possible during his 10-game benching.
"He’s been around every part of the team. Sometimes when a player is injured, he’s not around the team as much. That’s not the case here with David. He’s been around in meetings and with video sessions, he knows what we’re doing," Nonis said.
"The preparation with what the coaching staff expects, I think that will be 100 percent; what will be off a little bit would be his timing, probably, and maybe some chemistry with his linemates, which usually takes a bit of time. So we can’t expect too much from him coming back into the lineup. I know he expects a lot from himself but I think it’s going to take a little while to get up to speed."
Clarkson, who is set to officially open his Maple Leafs career on a line with Mason Raymond and Dave Bolland, could not ignore the irony of the timing in his return, what with John Scott called on the carpet by the NHL.
"I have to admit when I saw that, it did cross my mind," said Clarkson.
Scott is in trouble for a head shot to Boston’s Loui Eriksson. The Sabres enforcer didn't face any discipline in preseason for his actions that produced a suspension to Kessel (who two-handed Scott in defense), a fine to Sabres head coach Ron Rolston and, of course, the 10-gamer to Clarkson for jumping off the bench.
"People say, 'Would you do it again?' I say, 'It depends on the situation,'" Clarkson said. "I’m not here to be a sideshow or to do those things. But I've played my whole career with my heart and I'm not going to stop no matter where I go. I've served my time and now I'm ready to get back in the lineup and be part of something."