If there was a silver lining to Anaheim's lack of a minor league affiliate last year, it was the freedom to assign the organization's CHL prospects to a playoff team during the AHL postseason. Such was the case for Ducks shutdown defenseman Mat Clark, who joined the Manitoba Moose at the conclusion of his Junior year in the OHL. He only played seven games with the Moose, one regular season contest and a six-game playoff series with the Hamilton Bulldogs, but it was a valuable seven games in his development process.
"I'm really happy I got that experience," Clark says of his time with Manitoba. "They treated me well and gave me every opportunity to succeed. And I just worked hard there. I took what I learned there and used it all summer in my training, and then tried to bring it into camp this year. You know, not too many guys from Junior get a chance to go off at the end of the year and play in the AHL."
The transition to the professional game is difficult for some players, but only six months after his Junior hockey career ended, Clark is surprised by how much he has grown. Yet, he is also well aware of the remaining challenges in front of him as he starts his first full professional season with the Crunch.
"I think I'm getting used to the AHL game speed," the defenseman says. "Just the speed and the strength [are the biggest differences at this level]. You're not playing against 16 year-olds anymore, so [you want] to be able to move quickly while still being strong enough to handle the big men. Obviously, everything happens a lot faster out here, so I just need to get quicker and start to dominate at this level, just like I did at the Junior level."
The Crunch coaching staff has designed the team's defensive pairings to help all of its young defensemen learn to dominate, pairing each of them with veteran AHLers who have seen NHL time. Mark Mitera is flanked by Joe DiPenta, Jake Newton is paired with Brett Festerling and Clark plays alongside Danny Syvret.
"[Syvret]'s a really good player," says Clark. "He's really smooth and really makes smart decisions with the puck, so I really enjoy playing with him. I kind of crash and bang in the corner and get the puck to him, and he makes some real smart plays with it. It seems to be working out pretty well so far."
Playing with Syvret gives Clark the opportunity to shine as a defensive-defenseman while still observing the decisions and plays made by a more natural puck-mover. It's a setup not all that different from the one he experienced at the Ducks' Rookie Camp this year, when the rearguard was paired with Anaheim wunderkind Cam Fowler.
"[Fowler] is way beyond his years. I can't believe the maturity in his game and how smooth he is on the ice," Clark muses. "I can get the puck to him, and he can either rush it or make a really good decision with it. Those are the kind of D players I like to play with."
And the prospect of Clark and Fowler playing together in the future is a very real possibility as both steadily progress to the NHL level, with the latter trying to break directly into the league this year.
Clark still has a ways to go, of course, and there are still things he would like to add to his game. However, the 6'4" 218 pound blueliner is confident that he will be able to establish himself as a physical, shutdown player at the next level. And he already put an aspect of that to the test when he went toe-to-toe in the preseason with NHL tough guy and Twitter superstar Paul Bissonnette.
"The game was getting a little chippy, so I made a bodycheck on Bissonette," the defenseman recalls. "I guess he didn't appreciate that much, so he asked me to go. And I mean, I'm not gonna back down in a game like that, so I decided to stand in there with him, and see what happens. Obviously, he may have gotten the better of me, but going forward from now, next time, who knows."
Asked if he felt the difference in his first NHL-level fight, Clark is forthcoming, but he indicates he won't hesitate to answer the bell again.
"Absolutely, [I felt the difference]," Clark laughs. "I've fought some tough guys in the OHL over my career, but stepping in with someone who has established himself as a tough guy in the NHL, there definitely was a difference. The punches he hit me with were a lot stronger than the punches I'm used to getting hit with. But he didn't knock me out or anything, so I can keep going forward [as someone who fights at the next level]."
As to the cut he received from Bissonette, which forced Clark to skate to the dressing room after the fight, the defenseman brushes it off as the cost of doing business in the donnybrook.
"Yeah, I got a cut above my eye," he admits nonchalantly. "But that happens in hockey. You get punched in the face, you're going to get cut eventually."
Clark's attitude about his first run-in with an NHL tough guy is emblematic of his attitude about the next level of the game as a whole. He is confident in how good he is, and while he may occasionally encounter someone stronger or faster, he hasn't been knocked out yet. And he fully intends to achieve the speed and strength to conquer that someone the next time he sees them.