Canadiens should hold off on naming captain this season

Kyle Bukauskas reports from Quebec where the Montreal Canadiens are under the belief that they have a chance to surprise this season.

BROSSARD, Que.,– Here’s a thought for Marc Bergevin and Claude Julien as they get set to deliberate on what to do about the vacant captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens: Don’t name a new one this season.

It’s a most prestigious honour to follow in the footsteps of the Canadiens legends who captained the franchise to the majority of its 24 Stanley Cups; to be the 30th member of an exclusive club and have your name associated with the likes of Toe Blake, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Bob Gainey among others. And there are at least a couple candidates on the current edition of the team who could be considered worthy of it.

But the GM and the coach of the Canadiens shouldn’t rush to saddle someone with what, even in the best of times, can be an all-consuming and suffocating burden.

In trying times, the captaincy in Montreal has proven to be a near-impossible one to overcome. Just ask Max Pacioretty, who after three seasons as captain was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights at the beginning of this week.

Make no mistake about it, these are trying times for the Canadiens. They are a team in transition, as Bergevin noted at the team’s annual golf tournament on Monday. He might not have been willing to use the famous R-word (Rebuild), but he acknowledged that the focus is much more on the future than it is on the present.

As it should be.

Next to nothing was done this off-season to rectify the major issues—-at least in the short-term—-the Canadiens have at centre and on defence. And though the roster might not bottom out in 28th place in the 31-team NHL as it did last season, it will be hard pressed to make the 2019 playoffs even if it plays to its full potential.

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There are no guarantees that naming a captain, under those circumstances, would be setting someone up to fail, but history tells us it’s a distinct possibility that things would go precisely that way.

Pacioretty is only the latest example of a Canadiens captain who was set up to fail and ended up getting blamed for things well beyond his control.

It wasn’t Pacioretty’s fault that star goaltender Carey Price missed 70 games in his first year as captain. And though he had his part in it, it wasn’t all on him, either, that the Canadiens’ offence failed to score more than 11 goals in a six-game playoff loss to the New York Rangers in 2017.

And last we checked, Pacioretty wasn’t the one who decided to overhaul a defence that finished with the fourth-best goals-against average in the NHL two seasons ago. Nor was he the one who lost key players Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov in free agency and opted to replace them with players who could no longer keep pace in Ales Hemsky and Mark Streit.

As Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette noted in his column on Thursday, the Canadiens have gone through nine captains since losing the 1989 Stanley Cup to the Calgary Flames. Almost all of them were similarly dealt losing hands by their respective general managers and they were ultimately traded or released as a result.

If Bergevin wants to avoid going down that path with another player, he’ll hold off on naming a captain for the time being. And if he truly feels he already has the right man for the job in the Canadiens dressing room, he doesn’t have to put the C on that person immediately for the team to benefit from his leadership.

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We asked no less than eight members of the Canadiens on Thursday if a captain needed to be named in short order and they all came back with different versions of the same answer—that the captaincy’s importance is overstated.

The captain-less Golden Knights, who came within three wins of a Stanley Cup in their inaugural season, provided solid evidence to support that notion.

Also, there are several teams across the NHL—most of them in a similar state to the one the Canadiens find themselves in—with vacancies at the position.

The New York Rangers and New York Islanders are both in the early stages of rebuilds and it appears as though neither of them will name a captain before this season gets underway.

The Vancouver Canucks aren’t rushing to name one, either, after Henrik Sedin retired and vacated the position at the end of last season.

And we’re just guessing here but we’d be shocked if the Ottawa Senators, who were gutted to the core over the course of the last year, were prepared to name a new captain in the immediate aftermath of trading Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday.

If the Canadiens are buying into this way of thinking, maybe they’re even willing to wait for more than a year before naming a captain.

That strategy seems to be working for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are way ahead of where they thought they might be when they embarked on their rebuild in 2016. The Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading away Dion Phaneuf in February of that year, and you could argue that leadership by committee is a factor in why they have many people across the hockey world expecting they can contend for the Cup this season.

You have to think at least part of the reason they aren’t naming a captain before the start of this season is because they don’t feel the need to encumber someone with the added pressure and responsibility that comes with the role. They have viable candidates for the job in John Tavares, Patrick Marleau, Morgan Reilly and Auston Matthews, but they’re willing to wait.

It’s a wise move in a hockey-mad market. It’s one the Canadiens should be making, too.

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