Not since Mark Messier’s infamous guarantee has true captaincy seemed so important to a hockey club’s success.
And never has it been in such short supply.
Looking league-wide and not directly into the pupils of Jonathan Toews, has the state of the captain ever been in such disarray? Probably not.
With so many captains jumping ship (some were given a push) in the last 365 days, the scales of guidance have been rocked more dramatically than any other period in recent memory. While some teams (Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia) load up on players who have earned their ‘C’ legs, an incredible eight others drift aimlessly – captain-less for the interim.
Think about that: 26.7 per cent of NHL teams currently have a vacant ‘C.’
Another four NHL captains -- Bryce Salvador (Devils), Henrik Zetterberg (Red Wings), Claude Giroux (Flyers), Gabriel Landeskog (Avalanche) -- have yet to hold the post for a full 82-game schedule. While the veteran Zetterberg is a natural for the role and led the Wings on a fantastic late-season run, Giroux and Salvador failed to captain good clubs back to the postseason, and Avalanche backup goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere proved to be a bolder dressing-room voice than Landeskog in 2013.
Consider, two more captains could lose their letters by the time the 2014-15 season rolls around.
Florida’s Ed Jovanovski is 37 years old. He played just six games for the Panthers last season and has been the subject of not just injuries but also buyout speculation.
Dion Phaneuf’s handle as point man in the Maple Leafs' dressing room is tenuous, too. Phaneuf’s contract expires at the end of 2013-14, and he has already been shopped by GM Dave Nonis. Joffrey Lupul is a more natural fit for the role; he won’t get it until Phaneuf walks.
Perhaps your reaction is a shoulder shrug and a “so what?” Maybe you think having a long-standing captain is a formality.
Well, scroll through the list of Stanley Cup champions. Look at who was wearing the extra letter on the winning teams this century: Jonathan Toews, Dustin Brown, Zdeno Chara, Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer, Rod Brind’Amour, Dave Andreychuk, Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic. We don’t even have to remind you what teams they captained; your mind immediately associates them with their team. There is strength in those stitches.
On a week during which the hockey world heaped praise upon the leadership qualities of Niedermayer, Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan -- the 2013 class of the Hockey Hall of Fame -- the NHL needs more ‘C’s than a summer-school student.
Interesting to note, seven of the NHL's eight captainless teams failed to make the 2013 postseason. And the one club that did make it offered its former captain a blank cheque to stick around.
Here is a rundown of the rudderless eight -- all of whom bought out, failed to re-sign or traded away their ‘C’ men -- and the best bet (in bold) to seize the mantle.
Jason Pominville was traded to the Minnesota Wild at the deadline this season and has yet to be replaced. Veteran Tomas Vanek, an associate, seems like the natural successor, especially after his actions in the first Boston Bruins home game since the marathon attacks, but it’s unclear whether Vanek or GM Darcy Regier want Vanek to be part of the Sabres’ long-term plans. Passionate if quirky, Steve Ott is a great team guy. Drew Stafford, 27, has experience as associate captain, but veteran defenceman Henrik Tallinder might be the darkhorse here.
Jarome Iginla left a hole in the hearts of Calgary fans and perhaps a greater vacuum at captaincy. Mike Cammalleri would be a good choice, but it would be odd to bestow such an honour on a guy you were trying to trade out of town. Associate Mark Giordano could fill the role better than associate Curtis Glencross, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the rebuilding (admittedly!) Flames take their time (maybe an entire season) in crowning Iginla’s successor. Big skates to fill, no? We give the task to Giordano.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The captain-free Jackets were led by a fantastic goaltender last season and no one standout skater. It’s as if the city needed time to work through the five stages of grief after July 2012’s Rick Nash exodus. We could see the ‘C’ falling to an American: either centre Brandon Dubinsky or defenceman Jack Johnson. Both are still years away from 30, but this is a young team they could grow with. Although veteran Marian Gaborik is the best pure talent here and Nathan Horton knows how to win, lumping the captaincy upon either one is too much for their first full season in Columbus. That said, Gaborik and Horton do know the Eastern Conference better than the rest of the roster does.
Brenden Morrow was traded midseason as part of Penguins GM Ray Shero’s grand “let’s steal all the captains” scheme. Ray Whitney, 41, could certainly pull the seniority card, but the Stars are organizing themselves from top down to contend in the future. A younger choice would make sense here for stability’s sake. I’d bet on Jamie Benn, despite his 23 years on Earth. An associate last season, Benn is a competitor, a talent, and he’s signed through 2016-17. Defenceman Stephane Robidas, 36, is an option here. And newbie Shawn Horcoff knows the role, having led the Oilers.
As you’ve deduced by now, former captain Horcoff is a Star. If the Oilers wanted Ryan “Captain Canada” Smyth to be captain, we’re thinking he'd already have it. Smyth, 37, will take a puck and punch for his teammate, but this young group needs a captain who can grow with them. It would be a bold move, but there are much worse choices than the newly acquired Andrew Ference, 34. Of the associates due for a promotion, we'd give Taylor Hall the edge over Jordan Eberle. Hall will get the letter eventually, but is 21 too young?
This is getting easier and easier. Jason Spezza, 30, should be the one to take over from Detroit Red Wings forward Daniel Alfredsson. (Still sounds funny, doesn’t it?) Optimistic, smart, gracious and determined, Spezza will embark on his 11th year with the Senators and is the go-to guy for a quote. Veteran Chris Phillips could do the job just as well, but the fact the 35-year-old has but one year left on his contract (to the younger Spezza’s two) won’t work in his favour. Chris Neil is a loyal guy and a fan favourite, but his temper might be a tad much to earn him the letter. With Alfie gone, Spezza gets the ‘C’ and Neil inherits Spezza’s ‘A.’
Tampa Bay Lightning
Vincent Lecavalier was Tampa. A fabulous captain bought out and set free by one of the greatest captains of all-time, GM Steve Yzerman, and snapped up by a Philadelphia Flyers team that now has four players (if you count Chris Pronger) who have served as captain. Forever the associate, Martin St. Louis would be a great choice, but despite his production, the scoring leader is getting on in age (38). Politics might come into play here. Would St. Louis be slighted if it goes to Steven Stamkos – who apparently came out of the womb media-trained and is one of the top-five hockey talents on the planet? Maybe. Would Stamkos complain if it falls to St. Louis? Doubtful -- and definitely not publicly. Stamkos says he learned all about giving back to the community from Vinny, and he is a great choice. But St. Louis has seniority and can still play. Tough call. We say Stamkos inherits the ‘C,’ but only after St. Louis’ retirement.