At long last, after almost two calendar years, Captain Chris Clark (the undisputed captain of the team, mind you) reports that he's at full strength. We heard that pronouncement prior to last fall's training camp as well, but with a new season comes renewed optimism.
But just how optimistic should we be?
There remains this sentiment, which is admittedly appropriate for the start of camp, that Clark may still, summer veteran additions to the club notwithstanding, have a 20-30 goal scoring line season in him. While that may be overly optimistic in a sense, it's not difficult to imagine Clark becoming something more valuable: an anchor; a solid foundation for a checking line befitting a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Clark scored exactly 10 goals in each of his last three seasons in Calgary, prior to his trade to Washington (one of GM George McPhee's better swaps, no doubt). His tenure in Cowtown was capped gloriously in the spring of 2004, albeit with a bittersweet ending, by playing significant shut-down minutes, mostly with Stephane Yelle, Ville Nieminen, and sometimes Martin Gelinas, throughout a greuling 26-game playoff slate. Within one game of the Prize.
In the 2004 Cup Finals, Clarkie averaged about 13:50 TOI in the six games not settled in overtime, and nearly 21 minutes in 2OT Game Six (which lasted four 20 minute sessions and an extra :33 to await Martin St. Louis's game winner). Notably, he finished even or plus in all but four of the 26 playoff games in which he skated that spring. Same as Jarome Iginla in that department. Clark also added some modest offense: three goals (one on the power play) and three assists.
For the first time in his Capitals tenure, Clark will be counted on in a full time role as checking winger upon his return. And just at the right time.
Said Coach Boudreau, in discussing Clark's return to health: "We've been talking about that for a year and a half . . . You've got a guy that's hungry."
Clark said earlier this week:
"If I'm on a shutdown line, that's been my game all along before I got here when I was in Calgary. I could easily go back to that role. It is something where if it doesn't work out, there can always be changes down the road and I can work back into it another way."
Every championship club needs a solid checking unit anchored by a leader with a strong net presence, an ability to rattle opposing D in the crease and in the corners, a willingness to sacrifice at a level many hockey players never experience, and some decent hands. And one who is healthy enough to fully unload on his shot and skate to his limit. The guy that McPhee saw when he brought #17 into the fold back in August of 2005.
The Caps don't need another scoring line winger to put them over the top. They need Chris Clark. Here's hoping.