August 28th, 2009

Is It Time For A New Captain In Washington?

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Washington Caps Captain Chris Clark.  Photo by Allen Clark.

Over at Japers’ Rink, Stephen Pepper is asking a question out loud that I’ve been wondering about for a couple of seasons — whether or not it might be time for the franchise to reward the captain’s "C" to a player other than the current holder of the title, veteran winger Chris Clark:

Back in late January, when Clark was shut down for the remainder of the season due to wrist surgery (the second straight season truncated by injury), all GM George McPhee would reveal about the effect of Clark’s absence on the captain’s position was that he and Coach Bruce Boudreau "would probably talk about it at a later point." Boudreau’s view at the time, however, was clear: "Clark is our captain. There’s no controversy there. When he gets healthy, he’ll come back and be our captain." And so he did. Uncle Ted loves him. We see no indication that the team has since changed its course and will change its captain. But should they?

As I wrote in his Rink Wrap, Captain Cadaver certainly provides the younger players on this Caps team with an inspirational example of the rugged determination required to succeed in the NHL. But since his impressive 2006-07 campaign, he’s been unable to consistently lead on the ice. And even Coach appeared to have called out El Capitan during a rough stretch of last season. More to the point, two of three Game 7 failures under his captain’s watch resulted in defeat, the most recent of which was a stupendous collapse that still leaves much of Caps country scratching their heads. Ultimately, results matter.

Whenever anyone has asked me privately over the past few years, I’ve always said that I was sure that the team would turn over the captaincy to Alex Ovechkin when the time was right. And after posting back-to-back seasons as NHL MVP, it would seem like taking on the "C" would be a logical progression in Ovechkin’s career.

Then again, maybe not. Over in the comments following Pepper’s post, there’s plenty of vocal support for not disrupting the chemistry in the room by stripping Clark of the "C". But if anything, there seems to be even more support that if a change is going to be made, the job ought to be awarded to veteran forward Brooks Laich.

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Is it time for Brooks Laich?

It’s easy to see how Laich, who is coming off the best season of his career, would be a popular choice given his performance on and off the ice.  When it came to the postgame last season, Laich was always front and center in the locker room whether the team won or lost, patiently answering every question for the media scrum, and coming back for more if/when a lone reporter would return looking for a little bit more.  I’m sure part of the reason for that was his season-long project with NPR, but it was always pretty clear to me that Laich was comfortable playing that role and was really good at it.

So, when it comes down to it, should the team make a change?  I guess the question I would need to have answered is whether or not Clark is healthy enough to become a regular contributor again.  Which of course, brings up another unavoidable fact: if Clark has missed so much time over the past two seasons, it’s only been because he’s been willing to do the sort of job on this team that others have yet to embrace.

Rewind the clock to October 26, 2007 at Verizon Center as the Caps host the Canucks.  It’s less than one year after Clark took a puck square in the mouth during a game against the Boston Bruins.  That injury cost him a couple of teeth and crushed his pallet, but at the time, all Clark could think about was staying with the play and finishing his shift.  Eventually, he’d need to have surgery to implant a cadaver bone in order to repair the pallet.  Despite the severity of the mishap Clark would only miss two games.

Back to the October 2007 game against the Canucks.  In the previous two seasons skating on Ovechkin’s wing, Clark consistently did the dirty work along the boards and in front of the net that a player like him needed to do to be successful.  The results — 50 goals in two seasons — were undeniable.

But on this night, Clark showed why not everyone has the guts to mix it up in front of the net — folks can get hurt doing it.  This time, Clark took a slap shot off the stick of Ovechkin to the side of his head.  In the process, Clark lost a piece of his left ear, but it was just the start of a pair of lost seasons for the Clarkson grad.

After taking in all of that, why not put yourself in the shoes of General Manager George McPhee or head coach Bruce Boudreau?  Could you look Clark in the face and tell him he didn’t deserve to be Captain anymore?

In my head, I can make that argument.  But in my guts and in my heart, I’m afraid it would be a non-starter.  Know this: I’m glad the decision isn’t in my hands.

POSTSCRIPT: One last thought that came to me a few minutes ago: Greg Wyshynski has mentioned before how he beleived that once Boudreau became Washington’s head coach, the center of gravity inside the franchise dramatically shifted from Olie Kolzig to the guys that Boudreau coached at Hershey — and Clark is decidedly not one of those guys.  Decisive?  Who knows, but it is something to consider.

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One Response to “Is It Time For A New Captain In Washington?”

  1. Bill Thomas says:

    Very interesting topic. Like many fans, I have been disappointed with Clark’s inability to perform for a large part of the last two seasons, and wondering how a Captain can serve in that role when he’s not a part of the team or locker room for the majority of the season. However, after reading how Clark’s play is the major factor in his being injured, it makes me aware that he performs on the ice the way one would expect a leader to. As Eric McErlain mentioned; Clark does what few of the Capitals players are willing to do, and pays a heavy price for it. I would also concur that Brooks Laich is a likely successor for Clark as captain if they decide that the role should fall to someone else. While Ovechkin is the most obvious choice for Captain, I would like to just let him play his game without the added responsibility of being team captain just yet. At 24, there’s plenty time to move him into that role later in his career, but I would just like to see him continue to be the superstar that he is without the necessity of any more responsibility and demands then he already has.

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