TORONTO - It was a spur-of-the-moment thing for Clarke MacArthur. After scoring his first goal of the NHL season on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh he took his hand, put it behind him near his jersey nameplate and grabbed the metaphorical monkey off his back tossing it away.
"It was just because we hadn't played since April and I just felt like it had been a calendar year almost since I scored a real goal so I was just messing around," the Toronto Maple Leafs winger said.
MacArthur had just one goal in the final 16 games of the 2011-12 season, which saw the Leafs collapse down the stretch. He finished the campaign with 43 points, which was 19 fewer than the career-best mark of 62 he posted a year earlier.
"You get your career high and you don't meet it again ... it feels like it's a setback."
A main reason for the decline was that MacArthur failed to rediscover the great chemistry he had with linemates Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. And to this day, that still puzzles the Alberta native.
"It was tough, because we just couldn't get back in sync and it's the same three people and its mind boggling almost sometimes. It was, obviously, in my mind a setback."
REFRESHING HIS BODY AND MIND
Based on that, MacArthur wasn't willing to sit on his hands during the lockout. He wanted to play and start erasing the bad memories. He signed on with Eispiraten Crimmitschau of the German Elite League.
"It was fun," he said. "It was a different look on hockey, stress-free. I don't want to say it was like a men's league or anything. It was pretty good hockey, but you could forget it and move on and it's different than here where it's your job. It was definitely a different look and a lot of fun.
"It was tough, obviously, at the end of last season. To go over there and basically just play was a nice little breather and gave me a little refresher."
MacArthur also used the extended off-season to make a slight adjustment he thinks will help him during the NHL's current 48-games-in-99-nights sprint.
"I wanted to get in better shape," the 27-year-old said. "I was strong last year, but it was the weight part of it [that wasn't right]."
MacArthur hovered around 200 pounds last season, but begins this campaign at 191, which is what he was two years ago when he racked up 21 goals and 41 assists.
"I got back down to the weight I wanted to be at, that I was at two years ago, and I feel better skating-wise and endurance-wise. I got to the weight where my body feels best and it has taken this long to figure that out."
MacArthur has already played on three different lines this season. At first he was back with old running mates Grabovski and Kulemin. Then it was Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov. Now, with Joffrey Lupul likely out for at least six weeks with a broken forearm, MacArthur has been elevated to the top unit with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel.
Head coach Randy Carlyle likes to keep pairs of players together and then interchange that third person on a line.
"I'm looking for a pair," MacArthur said with a laugh. "No, it's fine. I knew that coming in. Be ready to play a different role on a different line lots of nights. That's fine."
Bozak and Kessel are tight off the ice and have created a nice chemistry on the rink as well.
"They know where each other is out there," MacArthur said. "You can tell that over the last two, three years they have been playing together. Bozie's really good at finding Phil streaking down the side so that's how they complement each other. Phil's quick enough to get a step on guys and Bozie can get him the puck."
So does MacArthur feel the trio have any early chemistry?
"I think we do," he said. "In the third period [against the Islanders on Thursday night] we could have had two or three."
NEW SEASON, NEW ROLE
During the morning skate ahead of the season-opening game in Montreal, MacArthur was approached by Carlyle, who informed him he would wear an 'A' on his jersey. It was unexpected.
"I don't think anybody knew what was going on there," MacArthur said. "It was exciting. It was nice. It's one of those things where it helps you, because you want to be accountable every night and it's like that little extra [motivation]. You got to be positive and you want to try and be leader."
As an alternate captain, MacArthur will be on the forefront in trying to get Carlyle's system installed. The transition from Ron Wilson's run-and-gun approach to the new coach's strategy, which relies on defensive accountability, is sure to have some bumps. The first example was on Thursday when the Leafs blew a 3-1 lead en route to a 7-4 home loss to New York. On Friday, Carlyle said he believed his group was "mentally tired" in the game.
"It's intense," MacArthur admits when asked about Carlyle's plan. "Everything's got a purpose. Systems-wise he likes to clamp down and have a good structure and every winning team has that so that's what we're trying to define in the room right now. Get to where we're doing the same thing every night. Almost robotic, you know?"
MacArthur has worn a letter before in the junior ranks with the Medicine Hat Tigers and in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans. He's been an alternate captain in Toronto as well, but only as an injury replacement. This year it's permanent and that's special.
"It was a great honour and, at the end of the day, I try and do most of my stuff on the ice and [in the gym]. I'll say the odd thing, but it's not much beyond that," MacArthur explained.
"There are three or four captains [and alternates] on 30 teams on the whole planet so it's pretty cool to be a part of that for one and to be in the books in Toronto is pretty cool. I mean, Toronto's been around for, you know, for as long as they've been around. It's neat to be a part of that and it'd be even better if we can do something with that this year and show we can lead."