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Capitals have options in filling their captaincy

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 2010; D01

EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. -- Within moments of Monday's trade that sent Chris Clark to Columbus, the question already was being tossed around inside and outside the Washington Capitals' locker room: Who will be the 14th player in team history to have the "C" stitched on his jersey?

Alex Ovechkin, the face of the franchise and the two-time league MVP, says he is ready and figures to be the leading candidate.

"But it's is not my decision to put 'C' on my jersey," said the 24-year-old, who is signed through the 2020-21 season. "If the team's going to trust me, and going to let me, why not? But the team decides."

The responsibilities of a captain entail more than being the team's best player. And for that reason, the list of potential successors is also expected to include prominent veterans Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble.

Coach Bruce Boudreau said he and General Manager George McPhee intend to take their time before making a choice for two reasons: They consider the captain to be a critical conduit to the other players, and out of respect for Clark, who held the position from September 2006 until he was dealt along with Milan Jurcina to the Blue Jackets for winger Jason Chimera.

"The captain, for me, is somebody I can call in, talk to and say, 'I need this,' " Boudreau said. "They have to be the sacrificer. I always think of the captain like the captain of a ship -- they're the last guy to leave and are always doing the right thing."

In the two games since Clark's departure -- the Capitals suffered lopsided losses to the NHL-worst Carolina Hurricanes and Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks -- Boudreau has rotated alternate captains. Ovechkin, Brendan Morrison and Knuble had the "A's" on Monday; Tom Poti joined Ovechkin and Knuble as an alternate Wednesday.

Whether intentional or not, Boudreau seemed to drop subtle hints about his feelings during a postgame news conference in San Jose. Although the Capitals had been badly outplayed, he went out of his way to praise Ovechkin for playing hard until the final buzzer.

"He competed really hard against a good team," Boudreau said. "He battled and battled, and that's what leaders do. He's definitely a big leader on our team."

Asked Friday whether he believes Ovechkin is ready to succeed Clark, Boudreau shrugged and said, "That's why there's the thought process."

This will mark Boudreau's first chance to put his stamp on the captaincy. Clark was tapped by Glen Hanlon, the coach Boudreau replaced in 2007. Boudreau never fully connected with Clark, in part because the rugged winger spent the majority of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons sidelined. The injuries diminished his ability to lead and his effectiveness when he returned.

"I would ask Chris about that stuff," Boudreau said. "I would call him in and ask him about different things. But the thing was, he was hurt for two years."

Boudreau consults his captain on all sorts of issues. Some items are mundane, such as when to schedule days off, practices on the road and the Christmas party. Others are important, such as delivering a message to the group or squashing small locker room disputes before they become big ones.

The captain also must be able to comfortably communicate with his teammates and the on-ice officials, which is why Ovechkin declined to be considered for the "C" 'when he was approached about it for the first time more than three years ago. At the time, Ovechkin said he felt that his command of English was not good enough.

That, however, is no longer an issue.

"It's not fine," Ovechkin said. "It still has to be better. But if I'm going to say something, guys are going to understand me. That's the most important thing. If I have some idea to say [something] I just say it and they understand me. If not, different guys are going to help me, too."

Knuble, who at 37 is the team's elder statesman and the only Capital with a Stanley Cup ring, was flattered when it was mentioned to him that he is a candidate. He also lent his support to Ovechkin and Laich.

"I think it's a pretty obvious choice with Alex being the face of the franchise," Knuble said. "Is he ready? For sure. He's a great example on the ice of how to play. When your captain is one of your hardest workers, it should feed down to the rest of the guys, you know? If Alex is named captain, he's going to be it for the next 12 years."

Knuble added: "Brooksie could be one in waiting. He's trying to do the right thing on and off the ice all the time."

During his four seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, Knuble was known for his behind-the-scenes leadership. But he never has been a captain in the NHL.

"I feel like a guy who works amongst guys and I can run in different circles a little bit," Knuble said. "I've been a go-between guy. But captain? That's Bruce and George's decision."

In the meantime, as Boudreau and McPhee mull their options, Laich said it will be leadership by committee in the Capitals' locker room.

"We don't lean on one guy to do it," Laich said. "If they name me, great, if they name someone else, great. I don't think anyone is really going to be surprised, [whoever] it's going to be."

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