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Back on the Backline

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
Ben Clymer has spent a great deal of his hockey-playing life as a defenseman. A few years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning brass opted to move him to left wing. In his first season with Washington, the right-handed shooting Clymer played almost exclusively on the right side. This season Clymer faces a new challenge: sliding back to his original position on the backline.

As the Caps prepared to open the 2005-06 season, then-captain Jeff Halpern offhandedly mentioned to Caps coach Glen Hanlon that Clymer had been the best defenseman on Team USA at the 2000 IIHL World Championships. Hanlon filed the information, and then put it to use early in the regular season. Down a couple defensemen, Hanlon called on Clymer to move back to defense in an Oct. 7 game against Atlanta. Clymer was even used on defense while the Caps were trying to kill off a two-man disadvantage that night, and he ended up logging 7:36 of ice time as a defenseman in the third period alone.

 “It was nice to play [defense] again,” said Clymer after that game. “I haven’t played in quite a while. It came back fairly quickly. It was only a couple of shifts, so I don’t know if there is any use in reading too much into it, but if they need me to play there I’m really happy to do that. I really want to help.”

Clymer later played a couple more games on the blueline for the Caps.  Late in the season, Clymer also served as a power play point man for the Caps, a role in which he was very effective.

As the 2006-07 season dawns, Clymer becomes one of the more intriguing stories of this fall’s training camp. Hanlon wants to move Clymer back to the blueline, to see how he might fit.

“I was tired of everybody telling me what a great defenseman he was in college and in the minor leagues,” Hanlon laughs. “I wanted to see for myself. So I asked him to do an exercise, and [tell me] when he played in college, how many guys are playing in the NHL that you thought you were as good as.”

After beginning his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota in 1996-97, he missed most of his sophomore season because of a shoulder injury. In between the two campaigns, he was the Boston Bruins’ second-round (27th overall) choice in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, a pick that translates into a late first-rounder these days. Clymer was the eighth defenseman chosen in that draft.

His shoulder healed, Clymer left the Golden Gophers to play with Seattle in the WHL in 1998-99. He had an excellent season there (12 goals and 56 points in 70 games), but was unable to come to terms with the Bruins. He won his unrestricted free agency rights, and signed with the Lightning just before the start of the 1999-00 season. As a 21-year-old defenseman, Clymer spent most of that season with Tampa Bay.

It was in the middle of the following season that the Lightning moved Clymer up to a forward position.

“Basically it was a size factor,” Clymer says now, when asked about the reasoning behind the switch. “I’m 6-foot-1, and at that point the game was going to guys who were 6-3, 6-4, 6-5. Simply put, that was the problem. Hopefully with the rules, I have a bit more of an advantage now.”

Hanlon believes that might be the case, and it is another factor in his decision to try to improve Washington’s defense by moving Clymer back there.

“No one has tried him with the new rules,” says Hanlon. “I didn’t know Benny well enough; I only knew him as a forward last year. We all didn’t really have a total grasp on what was going to happen with the new rules and how it was going to work out. If I knew back then what I know now about the player and how the rules were, I likely would have done it last year.”

alt Instead, Clymer played on the right side of a line with Matt Bradley on the left and Brian Sutherby in the middle. The CBS Line stayed together for most of the season, and helped the Capitals get stabilized after a rocky start. Clymer’s line was steady and consistent throughout the season, checking the opposition’s top unit, providing energy and chipping in with some offense as well. Clymer finished the 2005-06 season with a career high 16 goals and was looking forward to playing alongside Bradley and Sutherby again this season.

“Certainly at times in the middle of last year, I couldn’t have been happier playing forward,” says Clymer. “Sometimes I’m looking back at it and going, ‘I thought I had a good year last year, and I’d like to continue playing with Matt Bradley and Brian Sutherby.’ But there’s an opportunity to play D, and get more minutes and contribute in a different way this year as well. I will take it a day at a time and see which fits me and which fits our team needs best.”

Hanlon has clearly stated that Clymer will not be jerked back and forth from one position to another. When the 28-year-old Minnesota native played defense for Washington last season, he did so without ever having had the benefit of even a single practice session at the position.  

“You’ve got to get the reps in practice and try to be able to view and anticipate the game from a different perspective,” says Clymer. “Practice will certainly help.”

For Clymer, practice started on Friday when the Caps opened training camp at the Ashburn Ice House. He skated as a defenseman in an NHL practice session for the first time in more than five years.

“It couldn’t be any further in extreme unless I was playing goal,” says Clymer, when asked about the change. “As a D, the biggest thing you’ve got to do is make sure you get the puck to your forwards, while the other forwards are trying to stick it in your net. It’s completely different, and even just trying to get used to playing with new people is a change as well. Hopefully every day I can build a little bit, and the [Wednesday preseason] game against Tampa hopefully I will be game ready.”

Caps defenseman Jamie Heward sympathizes with Clymer’s plight. Heward was a forward for most of his career before he was shifted to defense shortly after he was drafted in 1989.

“I was originally drafted as a forward, so my forward days came pretty early in my career,” remembers Heward. “So I know what he’s going through. But he’s played defense before. I talked to him about it before camp started and asked him about how he felt about moving back. He was mixed about it; he said he was nervous about going back there. He played some games for us on the point on the power play last year and I think he is a mobile enough guy and a smart enough hockey player that he can get the job done. He is a good, smart, puck-moving defenseman and I think he is going to help us.”

Although Clymer has not played defense regularly in more than five years, he has played in the NHL regularly for those five years. He can put his experience on the wing to good use as a defenseman.

alt“From a different side of things, I’ve been able to learn things as a wing that they want, which will hopefully help me provide that to them,” he says. “Whereas when I was strictly a defenseman, there were times when you’d pass them the puck and something would go wrong and you’d think, ‘How can you not make the next play or make the next chain-connecting pass?’ Now, being on that end of things for a while, I understand. ‘Okay, they don’t want it in this situation or they do want it in that situation. Trying that out for a while will help perspective be a little bit different.”

After Friday’s practice, Hanlon was asked if the Clymer shift was permanent or experimental.

“I think it’s both,” he says. “We’re going to experiment with the intentions that we’re going to use him. We’re not going to put somebody through the exercise of trying to change back to his original position without really considering doing that. My discussion with Benny was that I wanted him to come here thinking he was a defenseman and that he was going to play on our hockey team as a defenseman. We’re going to give it a handful of games, likely four games, and then we’ll sit down and talk.”

“For now, it’s permanently experimental and we’ll go from there,” says Clymer. “I really don’t know exactly how that is going to play out over time. For today, there were times when I felt real good and there were times when I felt like I was out of place, But it will get better.”

It will get better, and it could make the Capitals’ defense a lot better. Clymer is a very good athlete whose skills set would appear to be well suited for the job description in the “new” NHL. He and the Caps will have a couple more practices before they open the preseason against Clymer’s former Tampa Bay Lightning teammates at Verizon Center on Wednesday. It could open up a whole new chapter in Clymer’s NHL career.

Central Scouting Bureau’s 1997 scouting report on Clymer after his freshman year at Minnesota:
Has a strong stride with good speed … he has excellent shooting and passing skills … likes to join the rush and is able to carry the puck to lead the offensive attack … he is very effective on special teams … enjoys the physical play and will not back down from challenging opponents … he is a fierce competitor with a mean streak.

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