His return has been long in the making. After a career-year three years ago, Capitals’ Captain Chris Clark fairly faded into obscurity. Two groin pulls, a wrist injury, and a demotion to the third line later, the captain has finally made his return from the abyss to become a critical part of Washington’s team yet again.
Three seasons ago, in just the second year of his tenure with the Capitals, Clark had been placed on the same line as the league’s brightest young star, Alexander Ovechkin. The 6’0” South Windsor, Connecticut, native put together the most impressive year of his entire career. In 74 games that season Clark scored 30 goals, had 24 assists, and fired an unprecedented 164 shots on goal.
While the Caps didn’t make much noise in the league, finishing fourth in the Southeast division, Clark’s performance gave hope for the future. They had their franchise player, a captain who looked like a reincarnation of Steve Yzerman, plenty of promising young prospects, and therefore seemed a franchise poised to make a turn around from the basement of the Eastern conference. Washington ended up doing just that, but that turn around happened laregly without the on-ice help of their captain and leader.
Clark sustained a groin injury not even a quarter way through the following season. It took him several months to return from the painful and year-killing injury. Once it had healed and everything looked good to go, Clark took the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers, but barely made it through one shift. Number 17 stepped on the ice and promptly re-injured the same groin muscle, ending his season.
He returned next year in the team’s new red, white and blue colors, looking to the put the past of painful injuries and a painful season behind him. The pain was just beginning however, as Clark would miss a majority of the season yet again, playing in only 31 games because of a bad wrist.
The wrist would plague him through the rest of the season. While he would return for the Capitals second-round playoff battle with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was offensively ineffective and was pushed to third line duty.
Perhaps more important than his return in the postseason was the vote of confidence Head Coach Bruce Boudreau gave him during their first round playoff tilt with the New York Rangers. After being asked whether or not Clark would lose the captain’s ‘C,’ Boudreau responded by reaffirming Clark as the captain, their leader on and off of the ice. It is quite the endorsement, considering that Clark had been one of the least productive players on the squad.
Clark finished the playoffs and still had the ‘C’ on his jersey.
Last summer he took the blows and demotions like a true leader thinking of the team first. Training camp began this September and it came out that Clark had agreed to be moved to the third line, also known as the retirement home for formerly skilled players. There was one problem with that, though: Clark decided he didn’t want to be confinced to the team’s third line.
Maybe Chris Clark isn’t quite a candidate for comeback player of the years award, but his is still a strong story of a leader’s perserverance. In November alone he had a four-game point streak that helped the Caps take five out of their last seven, and he capped that off with the winning shootout goal in a wild 11 round tilt against the Islanders.
While yes he has been clutch in several situations, and yes he has finally returned to the top line with Ovechkin, it is what he has meant to this team that is more important than his offensive firepower. Young stud Mathieu Perreault has come up from Hershey and been an absolute delight. He has made a playmaker’s precision passes, scored a couple of goals, and even doled out some hits. Much of the youngster’s poised play must be credited to his natural talent, but what we can’t overlook is the line he was put on. Perreault had Clark on his flank, and the captain certainly helped the young and nervous French Canadian get acclimated to the league.
It is just another demonstration of how much Boudreau actually trusts Clark. He knows that it doesn’t matter how many points Clark has on the season — he is in some sense a thread that holds the team together. He is the true meaning of leader.
On top if those leadership abilities, Clark also has the real ability to become a serious X-Factor. Recently he returned to the top line with former linemate Ovi and center Nicklas Backstrom and was +1 with an assist. Staying healthy is going to be key if Clark is to have a stellar season. The skills are clearly still there — especially the grit and warrior’s will in traffic — but the health is the only thing left in doubt.
Regardless of whether he stays true to form on the top line or falls back to the third, it will be Clark that will play a pivotal leadership role for this team on toward the playoffs, as he is the heart and sole of Washington Capitals hockey.
We can only hope that Clark stays healthy enough to play a full season this year. He looked really rusty in the playoffs, and to get far enough this year we need him to be in a groove at that point. I’m frankly shocked that Washington has kept him as a) the captain and b) on the team in general during these injuries. Most other teams would have ditched him straight away. Kudos to McPhee and the rest of the brass for never being hasty (at least in recent years).
Agreed Jim. I’m impressed with the Caps’ Clarke patience, and it’s paying off nicely.