Two years into his tenure as coach in Washington, Bruce Boudreau
is finally getting a true sense of captain Chris Clark
's value to the club.
Usually a coach and captain try to forge a relationship right away, but in the case of Clark and Boudreau it was virtually impossible. Clark never stayed healthy or consistent long enough to win over his new coach -- despite the fact that he scored 30 goals three seasons ago.
"I would see him every morning and he would joke around by asking me, 'Are you playing tonight?' Obviously he knew I wasn't," Clark told NHL.com. "It was tough to be that guy, the liaison between the players and the coach. There wasn't much of that going on."
Now, knock on wood, Clark is 100 percent and Boudreau has seen enough from him that he recently moved the captain to the coveted spot opposite Nicklas Backstrom
and Alex Ovechkin
on the Capitals' No. 1 line.
Long before Boudreau got to Washington and injuries savaged two of Clark's prime seasons, he and Ovechkin had some serious chemistry playing on the same line together. It led to Clark's career-high 54 points in 2006-07.
Ovechkin assisted on Clark's goal in Monday's 4-3 overtime loss at Ottawa, the Capitals third-straight loss and second after regulation. Clark has 2 goals, 7 assists and 20 penalty minutes in 24 games.
The Capitals host Buffalo on Wednesday.
"He's skating a lot better and he's getting in on the forecheck and he's starting to get chances by going to the net and creating opportunities," Boudreau said. "With that comes more ice time. He started out slowly and I think he's played a lot better in the last eight or nine games."
Clark could probably use another quarter of the season to really feel his way back. He played in only 58 games (Stanley Cup Playoffs included) during the previous two seasons, including only five under after Boudreau took the reins with 61 games left in the 2007-08 season.
"He was a shooter when he scored 30 goals and he also had a stride that was very powerful," Capitals wing Brooks Laich
told NHL.com. "When you can't skate, you can't really do anything, even shoot the puck. Now his stride is starting to come back and he feels comfortable. He's played a quarter of the season and been healthy. After another quarter like that, I think he'll really step up in the second half."
Clark started on his downward spiral when he took a shot off the ear in late October of 2007, forcing him to the sidelines for eight games with a severe laceration and equilibrium issues.
He came back Nov. 15 and played in eight games before aggravating his groin, a nagging injury he simply couldn't shake.
He played in only one more game that season, Jan. 13 against Philadelphia. He could play only 11 shifts totaling nine minutes because he tweaked his groin again. At the time he didn't think it was a serious setback, but it obviously was.
"It was a thing where I'd feel great and then I'd do one thing and it would just set me back," Clark said. "I knew I had to get a week or a week and a half of really good practices before I'd get into a game, but I would feel good one day and then set myself back and rehab for two more weeks. It felt good sometimes, but if they could get inside of it and look they would see it obviously wasn't where it should have been."
The worst part, of course, was Clark couldn't be anything more than an ancillary part of the Capitals remarkable turnaround during the 2007-08 season. He had to watch their march to the Southeast Division title from the press box.
"The run to the playoffs was probably the hardest thing I have ever gone through," he said. "The whole thing turned around; the team and the fans, it was a complete 180 and it was one of the hardest things not to be a part of it."
Looking back on it, though, it probably wouldn't have mattered because even if Clark's groin was healthy, he would have soon figured out how severely injured his wrist was.
Clark first injured his wrist early in the 2007-08 season, but he didn't know how bad it was because he wasn't skating or shooting as he battled the groin problems. Once the groin was better, the wrist got progressively worse.
It became sore during training camp and, by this time last season, Clark said he couldn't even hold his stick. He took a month off from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but it didn't seem to matter.
"I went into a cast and thought I'd be OK," Clark said. "I came back and it didn't work, so, on Feb. 1, I had the surgery."
He didn't return until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal against the New York Rangers
. He played the entire seven-game series against Pittsburgh in the next round, but averaged only six and a half minutes of ice time per game.
Clark clearly needed the summer to rehab and feel good about himself and his game again. He needed a strong camp and start to the season to get any trepidation out of his mind.
"I wanted to make sure I was healed," said Clark, who added that he has a warm-up ritual now that lasts about 40 minutes. "So, I skated from June on, but all of August I was really pushing my wrist to make sure it wouldn't be achy when I got to camp. If it was, then I'd have it in my head."
Even in the tough times, Clark never forgot about his responsibility to his teammates. He tried to be their captain in other ways.
If a guy needed a pick-me-up lecture, Clark was there. If he saw something from the press box that wouldn't be readily noticeable from ice level, Clark would make it known. He was around the boys before and after every practice.
"There are so many things that you guys are not fortunate enough to see behind the scenes that Clarkie does for this team," Laich said. "I have been to Clarkie's house four years straight for Christmas. My parents have been there. He's the first guy to call guys in the summer and let them know when ice time is scheduled. He makes sure everybody is together. That's the leadership qualities he has. That's why he's captain.
"We're glad to have Clarkie back."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org