Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 8: Oh Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

So begins the poem by Walt Whitman. The prize the Caps seek has not yet been won, yet as in the poem their Captain will not be with the team to reap that reward, should it come this spring. Chris Clark was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets with defenseman Milan Jurcina for forward Jason Chimera just before the end of the year.

In the cold light of truth, the move cannot be criticized on its face as a bad business move. Clark clearly lost a step, either through age (he is 33), the accumulation of injuries, or both over the past couple of years. And, the deal saves the Caps about $2.2 million in salary cap (annualized), thus giving the team additional flexibility to pursue a trade down the road. The trade comes with enough lead time so that the team can take a long look at the remaining pieces and see how they fit both on and off the ice.

And that brings us to the elusive concept of “chemistry.” George McPhee is no stranger to flipping the switch on a big deal in the midst of good times. This deal, coming as it does in the midst of a three game winning streak, has the faint echo of a deal he made on March 13, 2001, when the Caps were on a 16-2-2-1 run (and five-game winning streak) and were coming off perhaps their most electrifying comeback in team history – a 6-5 win over the Ottawa Senators when the Caps came back from a 5-2 third period deficit. McPhee traded Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis, and Washington's 1st round choice in 2001 Entry Draft to Montreal for Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus and New Jersey's 2nd round choice in 2001.

The trade in 2001 did not work for the Caps as intended, the club finishing the post-trade portion of the regular season 4-7-0-2, then going quickly and quietly in six game in the opening round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh. This deal isn’t that big, perhaps, but it has a similar feel in that it the effects on team chemistry cannot be overlooked. And the biggest part of the chemical equation has to do with the dealing of the team captain. The Caps are no strangers to this, either…

1995: Kevin Hatcher — replaced by Dale Hunter as captain in 1994, traded to Dallas
1999: Dale Hunter — traded to Colorado
2002: Adam Oates — stripped of captaincy in 2001, traded to Philadelphia
2003: Steve Konowalchuk — traded to Colorado
2009: Chris Clark — traded to Columbus

It is a stark reminder that this is, first and foremost, a business where jobs and reputations are measured in wins and losses. It is the responsibility of team management – any team’s management – to make every effort to ice the most competitive team possible with an eye toward winning the Stanley Cup. If it means dealing a player – a captain – widely respected in the locker room and among fans as a player’s player, one who will do whatever it takes to win, then that is the price one pays from time to time to take the next, and perhaps the last step needed to winning the Cup.

For fans, it is another rite of passage for those who perhaps have not followed the Caps or any individual team for very long. Players come, and players go, sometimes suddenly and without warning. The attachments that fans develop with those players – and Clark was a player anyone who appreciated the sport could root for – makes for some trying times and bitter responses (The Boss will probably be getting some e-mails now). But this is how it is in professional sports. Nevertheless, another part of what makes this a top-ten story is the nature of Clark as player, teammate, and representative of the club. In all of those respects, his time here has been memorable. As a player, he introduced himself to Caps fans by setting, then breaking personal highs in goal scoring in his first two years here on clubs that were otherwise difficult to watch at times. He was a stand-up sort of player who did not suffer liberties taken with teammates lightly. And he gave every indication of being honest and forthright in his dealings with the media, often serving as the voice of the team after a win or a loss.

Clark also served as the sort of role model of the tireless, they’ll have to drag me off the ice sort of player that inspires. Taking an Alex Ovechkin slap shot off the ear or a puck in his mouth, requiring a repair with the aid of a cadaver’s palate and screws, or playing through a wrist injury that would ultimately require surgery, Clark was the epitome of the tough as nails teammate.

This has to be especially hard for a player like Clark, who can see the end of his career in the distance. He came to the Caps having played (and lost) in a Stanley Cup final, skating for a new club that was in a self-inflicted burn-it-to-the-ground rebuild. He played just about every role a forward could have – scorer, checker, keeper of the peace, grinder – serving as an example for a team that played hard every night, even when it was only a 70-point team. Then the injuries started coming, and the Caps had skilled kids who passed him on the depth chart. He did not seem to be able to get over the hump, even as his health returned, and his ice time and responsibilities were cut back. But he was still the “Captain,” who carried himself in such a fashion that did honor to himself and the club on and off the ice, despite being reduced to fourth-line status much of the time. At 33, he can see the end of his career on the horizon, and now he goes off to a team that is itself at least a couple of years from contending in a tough division. In the back of our mind, we think a guy like “Clarkie” deserves better.

This trade would perhaps be a bigger story in 2009 if the effects were better known. We can’t know that at this stage, neither team having yet welcomed their new players. For all we know, this could be the equivalent of a Dainius Zubrus-for-Jiri Novotny trade. But for the seismic shocks that will ripple through the team that sees its captain, and arguably its most heart-and-soul player, traded away, it has to be a top-ten story for 2009.


Hooks Orpik said...

Interesting read; I wonder what the list of captains traded away from first place teams would look like. Would Clark be the only one on it?

My immediate reaction is Chimera should add a little more speed, PK'ing and a friendlier cap hit than Clark brings to the table at this point, but like you said the established "heart and soul" aspect could be significant.

I'm sure the Caps will be fine in the long run, they're all professionals and in a lot of ways it seems like Clark was a perfect rebuilding captain but now was rendered almost irrelevant by the skill and other players in the picture...Kind of like the coach that gets you to the mountain but needs to go before success (Hanlon, Therrien and so many others).

Diane said...

Hooks, you probably are more objective about the trade than I am.

Logically, I can see why the trade was made -- to clear the jam in the blue line and acquire some grit. And I also think the Caps will recover emotionally and be fine in the long run.

Emotionally, I feel sad that Clark (and Juice) were dealt for a person who had injured one of my favorite players and whose team I've been rooting against as a result. I feel like our Captain was traded for a Greek mythological monster.

The Peerless said...

@ Hooks... it's sort of the daily double. The Caps also traded a player who was the league's leading scorer at the time -- Robert Lang -- during the tear down/rebuild.

exwhaler said...

The mention of the Zednik/Bulis-Linden/Zubrus trade sends shivers down my spine. The timing of that trade was horrible, and it visibly sapped the Capitals after their best win of the season. As much as I liked Zubrus, I still think that trade did more damage to the Caps' playoff hopes than anything else.

I wouldn't be surprised to see the Capitals sluggish the next several games. Trading the team captain--a guy that the locker room refused to allow to give up the "C"--after two great wins against division leaders sends a really bad message to the team. Hopefully, the trade comes early enough that they can work through it for the playoffs, and once Chimera joins the team, things may straighten out soon rather than later.