Capitals trade their captain to Columbus

For the past five years, when Brooks Laich looked to his right in the Washington Capitals’ dressing room at Verizon Center, the first person he saw was Chris Clark.

For the past three-plus seasons, Clark has been Laich’s captain - but no longer. Clark was traded Monday to the Columbus Blue Jackets along with defenseman Milan Jurcina for left wing Jason Chimera.

“I’m sad to see him go,” Laich said. “A terrific man and a great hockey player - he did so much more for this club even when he was injured than what he got credit for and what people saw.”

Added Clark: “I’m definitely shocked, but you never know in hockey or in any other sport. You prepare for the worst but hope for the best. It’s tough. I had a lot of good years here, and guys don’t often get to spend a lot of years with one team. Going from being with a team that was near the bottom and being with them on the way to the high point, you always want to be with the team at the high point.”

The deal accomplishes three things for Washington:

First, it eases a logjam on the blue line. The Caps had nine defensemen when everyone was healthy, and finding suitable playing time was tricky for coach Bruce Boudreau. Jurcina had been a healthy scratch four times in the previous nine games.

“Well, we just thought it was the right trade for us right now,” general manager George McPhee said. “We’ve had extra defensemen all year, and that’s not a great situation to be in.”

Second, it saves the Caps slightly more than $2 million (pro-rated) against the salary cap. Clark, 33, is in the second year of a three-year contract that counts $2.633 million a season against the cap, and the 26-year-old Jurcina was awarded a one-year, $1.375 million deal in arbitration.

Chimera, who will turn 31 in May, has two more years after this one on a pact that pays him $1.875 million a season. Combined with loaning Michael Nylander to Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, McPhee has transformed his franchise from being one snug against the salary cap into one that could be a serious buyer at the NHL’s trade deadline in early March.

“If we want it to be,” McPhee said when asked whether the extra cap room would make them players in the trade market. “But it wasn’t necessarily about cap space because we have space. This was about what’s the right move for the team in terms of players, and that was the focus. That we got extra cap space out of it was nice, but it wasn’t what was driving the trade.”

Third, Clark, a natural right wing, had been stuck playing on the left side for the past three games since Laich moved to center. McPhee said he expects Laich to see more playing time in the middle, so adding Chimera and subtracting Clark provides balance to the club’s corps of forwards.

By moving Clark, the Caps are in the odd position of competing for the top spot in the NHL standings but also searching for a new captain. Clark was named the franchise’s captain before the 2006-07 season.

Members of the organization never wavered about his place as the team’s leader even when injuries kept him from the lineup and the improved talent on the roster reduced his role.

“Chris has been a great captain and a great leader,” Boudreau said. “You don’t just slap a ‘C’ on somebody else. You take your time - out of respect for him and to make the right decision. For me, a captain is a very important piece of the team. We’ll take our time.”

Candidates to replace Clark could include Alex Ovechkin, who has been an alternate captain since his second season in the league, veteran Mike Knuble and Laich.

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