Posts Tagged ‘Chris Clark’

April 12th, 2010

Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Playoff Notebook: Preface

Heading into yesterday’s regular season finale with the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals had little, if any, unfinished business.  For certain, the team was committed to helping Alex Ovechkin secure his 3rd straight Rocket Richard Trophy.  And there was little doubt in my mind that if the chance presented itself, the team would do everything it could to get Alex Semin his 40th goal and Mike Green his 20th.

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Mike Green failed to get his 20th goal, but there are bigger fish to fry this Spring in D.C.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, at this point in the organization’s development, individual goals count for little with everyone focused on bringing Washington its first Stanley Cup.  So yes, there was exaltation when Semin tallied his 40th goal in the first period.  But while it might be possible for somebody to have mixed feelings after Ovechkin and Green were kept scoreless during the balance of a 4-3 shootout loss, the overriding buzz in the locker room after the game was one of anticipation.

The preliminaries were over, and now the real business was at hand.

Standing in the locker room after the game, it was hard not to remember just how different the end of the regular season could look here in Washington, and just how far the organization has come in such a short amount of time.

For me, my mind wandered back to the scene following the regular season finale in 2007, the last year that the team failed to make the playoffs.  On April 7, 2007, the Caps went away quietly at home at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres by a score of 2-0.  Though it was only three years ago, and it was already apparent that Ovechkin was the sort of transcendent talent that would eventually catapult Washington back into playoff contention, the fans hadn’t come back yet.  Instead, the stands that day were filled with noisy Sabres fans, either folks from Western New York who decided to spend a long weekend in the nation’s capital, or just some of the many local residents who were transplants from the economically depressed Buffalo region.

In the bowels of Verizon Center after that game, the press gaggle around Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff was pretty deep — and why wouldn’t it be, with the team having just completed the regular season with the league’s best record.  That Sabres team was just one year removed from an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, and was one of the prohibitive favorites to win it all that Spring.

Unfortunately for those Sabres, the burden of increased expectations was too much for them to handle, and they went down meekly in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Ottawa Senators.

The postgame presser with then-Caps coach Glen Hanlon wasn’t as well attended.  Back then, Hanlon’s postgame comments were always delivered in a small room just off the entrance to the hallway that leads to the Caps locker room.  Even though there were few of us in attendance, I’ll never know how we all managed to fit into that room.  The mood there, like it had been in the Caps locker room, was actually pretty hopeful.  Talking to Hanlon, Olie Kolzig and Chris Clark that day, it was more than clear that the team had turned a corner, and that better days were just ahead.  And all of them were looking forward to being part of the fun.

Of course, none of them are around now that the party is really getting started. 

Today, Bruce Boudreau’s postage press conferences are now held in an interview off the main press lounge, a room big enough to handle rows of chairs and more camera crews than I ever remember seeing crowd into the broom closet where Hanlon used to take questions.  A locker room that used to be easy to navigate is always crowded, and its about to get even more crowded once Montreal comes to town for Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs on Thursday night.

Today, it’s the Capitals who posted the best record in the regular season, and now it’s this team that needs to work under the burden of increased expectations.

What will the result be?  We all know that the same kind of pressure that breaks most substances also turns coal into diamonds.  But we also need to know that not every ride to the Stanley Cup is an uninterrupted escalator ride to success.  Even the best team of the post-Original Six era, the Edmonton Oilers, experienced a dramatic setback before winning five Cups in a seven-year stretch.  In the Spring of 1983, Gretzky, Messier, Kurri and all the rest were the favorites heading into the finals against an aging and battered Islanders squad.  But only four games later, the same team that would write its name in history was left battered at the hands of the dynastic Islanders in a four-game sweep.

But if you talk to those players now, to a man, they’ll tell you how that loss made possible all of the victories that came later on.  Sometimes you need to take one step back to get that extra step up to be successful.

Over the past three years, the Caps have made multiple incremental improvements in all aspects of their on-ice performance, incremental improvements that have culminated in the best regular season performance in the team’s history.  They are the favorite to win it all, and anyone who tells you they aren’t is stone cold crazy.

I don’t have any doubt that we will see Alex Ovechkin lift the Cup above his head as a Stanley Cup champion here in Washington.  Will they do it this year?  My heart says yes, but my head, filled with decades of memories of other clubs with broken dreams, isn’t so certain.  I guess I’ll just have to stick around to find out.

 
December 29th, 2009

Jeff Schultz is Worth More Than You Think

I was reading through yesterday’s transcript of an online chat hosted by WaPo NHL Editor Lindsay Applebaum when I came across this exchange about Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz.  As everyone knows by now, the Caps dealt winger Chris Clark and defenseman Milan Jurcina to Columbus in exchange for left wing Jason Chimera.

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The implication Applebaum is making here is pretty clear: that Jurcina is a better defenseman than Schultz, even if the numbers indicate that isn’t the case.

Here’s a better answer: trading Schultz rather than Jurcina would have made this trade a loser for Washington.  Instead of Chimera being the best player in what should be looked at as a trade of spare parts, Columbus would have been getting a solid young defenseman who hasn’t yet reached his 24th birthday, one whose best years in the NHL are still ahead of him.  Worse still, dealing Schultz instead of Jurcina wouldn’t have cleared nearly as much cap space ($660,000 less) — which even Applebaum concluded was the actual object of the deal anyway.

As I said on a bloggers roundtable on 1500-AM a few weeks back, there are few players on this roster outside of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom who are untouchable.  Jeff Schultz certainly isn’t, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that he is an asset without value.  And if Columbus GM Scott Howson asked Caps GM George McPhee to include Schultz in the deal rather than Jurcina, I’m sure McPhee’s answer was no, not at the price you’re offering.

UPDATE: Lindsay just sent the following email that I thought was important to share:

Hey Eric,

Well, uh, thanks for linking to the Caps chat, though you did spell my first name wrong. Just to clear things up after reading your blog post, I was being entirely sarcastic and jokey about my Jeff Schultz comment. The tone of these chats and our own guidelines for them allows for that. Clearly, it came across as something different and unfunny, which is unfortunate and precisely why I am an editor as opposed to a writer.

Your post was fair and at all not off-base. As long as that stuff isn’t personal – which it often is – I can take it. Anyway, just wanted to let you know I’m reading.

Thanks (no, really),

Lindsay Applebaum

Sports | The Washington Post

First of all, sorry to Lindsay for getting her name wrong, which I’ve since corrected.  And no, this stuff isn’t personal, it’s opinion.  No harm, no foul and thanks for reading.

 
December 29th, 2009

Another ESPN.com Fail on the Washington Caps

Perhaps I’m getting too sensitive, but it was hard not to notice that ESPN.com misspelled Chris Clark’s name last night when it posted the following link.

Chris Clark Misspelled
Somebody call a copy editor.

And in case you missed it, here’s another one that J.P. dug up.

 
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.