Friday, August 04, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- August 4th

When the calendar rolls over to August, you know you are in the deep summer of hockey. Players might be back home or with their families on vacation, the members of the hockey media might take the month to recharge before training camps convene in September. But even while the pace in front office might bend to the rhythm of the summer season, there is occasional activity. Sometimes, it is even consequential.

One of those instances took place on August 4, 2005. Barely a month before training camp started for the 2005-2006 season, the Caps traded a sixth round pick in the 2007 entry draft and a seventh round draft choice in the 2006 draft to the Calgary Flames for a seventh round pick in the 2007 draft and winger Chris Clark.

Clark, who had last been seen in the Stanley Cup final in 2004, before the NHL went dark for a season due to a lockout, was coming off three consecutive 10-goal seasons with the Flames. By the standard of the times, that being the latter stages of the dead-puck era, 10-goal seasons were not bad, but Clark was thought of more as a grinder, a player who would do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net to create space and chances for more skilled forwards.

No one could have foreseen that upon becoming a Capital, Clark would double his goal output to 20 in his first season with the club and would record his first (and only, as it turned out) 30-goal season in the NHL the following year (including nine power play goals, almost doubling his career power play goal output in his career to that date). It was in that second season with the Caps that he endeared himself to Capitals Nation for demonstrating just what “hockey tough” means. Having been named captain entering the season, Clark was leading by example late in regulation in a November contest against the Boston Bruins. With just over a minute left, he took a puck in the face that knocked out two teeth and crushed his palate bone.  And yet, he finished his shift. He recorded neither a point nor a shot in that game, but it served as an object lesson to his young teammates on toughing it out. He missed just two games before returning to the lineup, further cementing his reputation as a tough player.

The 2006-2007 season would be a career high-water mark for Clark, though. Injuries led to large chunks of lost games, and he recorded just 10 goals and 30 points in 88 games over parts of the next three seasons before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets with defenseman Milan Jurcina for forward Jason Chimera in December 2009. Clark finished that season and played one more in Columbus before his career came to an end at age 34.

But what if August 4, 2005 came and went without a trade? Would things have been different? It’s hard to say that keeping those late-round 2006 and 2007 draft picks would have made a difference for the better, or for the worse, for that matter. However, those were the first two seasons in which Alex Ovechkin skated with the club, and he did not have a wealth of offensive talent surrounding him, even with Clark. In his rookie season in 2005-2006, Ovechkin (52 goals) and Clark (20) were two of four 20-goal scorers for the club (Dainius Zubrus and Matt Pettinger were the others). Their 72 combined goals accounted for 25.7 percent of the club’s total. The following season, Ovechkin (46 goals) and Clark (30) accounted for 32.5 percent of the team’s total goal scoring.

The question becomes, did Clark’s presence and production make a difference in the early formative years in Ovechkin’s career, or would his absence have been reflected in more attention focused on Ovechkin with less production as a thinner lineup failed to provide enough offensive support to take the scoring burden off the youngster?  In that first season for Ovechkin, he opened on a line with Zubrus and Jeff Halpern, veterans in their own right.  Zubrus was a veteran of 539 regular season games going into that 2005-2006 season, while Halpern dressed for 368 games before Opening Night in 2005-2006.  In fact, that Ovechkin-Halpern-Zubrus combination also closed the season and was intact for much of the intervening schedule.

The following season opened with Ovechkin on a line with Zubrus and Richard Zednik, while Clark was skating with Alexander Semin and Kris Beech.  That lasted one game, a 5-2 loss in New York to the Rangers.  In Game 2, the Caps’ home opener, Ovechkin scored a pair of goals, Clark assisting on both.  It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful relationship.  Clark skated with Ovechkin and Zubrus until the latter was traded to the Buffalo Sabres late in the season, Kris Beech filling in at center for the most part thereafter.  But Clark and Ovechkin were fixtures on that top line. 

It mattered.  Although the Caps struggled overall in the 2006-1007 season, they won just one of the eight games that Clark missed that season (1-4-3).  Ovechkin did fine in Clark’s absence over those eight games, going 5-4-9.  The rest of the team, however, could not make up the scoring, averaging 2.50 goals per game while averaging 2.89 goals per game with Clark in the lineup.

Those eight games missed offer a window into what things might have been like had the trade not been made for Clark.  His influence on Ovechkin’s development, in terms of the raw numbers, appears negligible.  But he provided hard minutes and consistent production, the latter being a rare commodity with those first two teams coming out of the lockout.  One cannot help but think the Caps, unsuccessful as they were in those first two years, might have been worse.  And that is where things could have gone sideways in terms of the timeline.

It is possible that the Caps could have finished more than five points worse in the 2005-2006 season, which could have left them with the third overall draft pick instead of the fourth pick.  Caps fans know that the club selected Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick.  But picking third, Jonathan Toews (who was taken with the third pick by the Chicago Blackhawks) would have been available.  General Manager George McPhee might still have taken Backstrom, who he preferred to Jordan Staal, taken second overall in that draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  But, if there was some uncertainty in which direction the Caps wanted to go, perhaps there was room for a deal to be made to allow the Caps to move down in the order and still get Backstrom.

The 2007 draft might have been more intriguing had Clark never come to Washington.  The 2006-2007 Caps struggled once more and finished only two points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and thre ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Caps, without Clark, might well have finished with the second-worst record in the league, and even if the Blackhawks still won the ping pong ball draw to draft first overall, the Caps would have had the third pick, not the fifth with which they selected Karl Alzner.  But before you spend too many brain cells on this, the 2007 draft does not seem, in retrospect, to have been a deep draft.  Chicago would have taken Patrick Kane, as they in fact did, and the Caps might have taken James van Riemsdyk (taken second by Philadelphia in real time) or Kyle Turris (taken third in real time by the Coyotes).  Ot they might have taken Thomas Hickey, who was the first defenseman taken in the draft, one spot ahead of Alzner, but who didn’t become a full-time NHL player until the 2013-2014 season with the New York Islanders.

Then there is the matter of coaching.  Glen Hanlon had the misfortune of trying to guide this young team through the formative stages of its development.  Having a veteran such as Clark helped in ways tangible (goals and assists) and intangible (experience).  In his absence, the team might not have been hard-working but unsuccessful, just bad.  Worse seasons than the ones the Caps had might have hastened a coaching change (Hanlon was relieved by Bruce Boudreau in late November of the 2007-2008 season).  Perhaps Boudreau, who was coaching the Hershey Bears, is elevated in the off season following the 2006-2007 campaign.  Or, with more time to deliberate and consider possibilities, the Caps go in an entirely different direction in favor of a head coach with more experience.  Would Claude Julien, who was fired late in the 2006-2007 season, come up on the Caps’ radar (he went to Boston that summer)? Would free agent head coach Mike Keenan have been considered (he went to Calgary)?

Chris Clark had his greatest team success with the Calgary Flames, reaching the 2004 Stanley Cup final, but he had his most successful years individually with the Capitals.  His 20 and 30 goal seasons are largely lost in what was at the same time part of an unsuccessful stretch in team history but the first years in the spectacular career of Alex Ovechkin.  However, his work ethic, consistency, and toughness allowed him to carve out a couple of fine seasons in the midst of the team’s struggles and gave the club some ballast, a foundation upon which the young guys could learn what it takes to play at this level.

The odd part about speculating on what might have happened had Clark never come to Washington is the scope of possibilities and the consequential nature of them.  The Caps might have looked very different on the ice with the high draft picks they might have made and behind the bench, depending on the timing of coaching changes they might have made.  One cannot help but think that the Caps are better today for having had Clark pass though Washington, although in ways that might not be immediately apparent.

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images North America