They say it’s not all about a sole captain anymore. It’s about a leadership group. That’s the buzz phrase to describe power structure in NHL dressing rooms these days.
Still, Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup to a single skater and not a quartet of guys wearing A’s. And when Dustin Brown loses his captaincy to Anze Kopitar, things can get awkward, even if you tell him he’s still part of the leadership group.
Of the seven NHL teams with vacant C’s this summer, four failed to the make the 2016 playoffs. Three traded away their 2015-16 captain, and two lost their leader to unrestricted free agency.
Now, a significant 23.3 per cent of NHL teams have yet to name a captain for the upcoming campaign.
We examine the top candidates to assume the mantle for each of these seven franchises and make a prediction (name in bold) as to who will inherit the C—a mix of no-brainer choices and tough decisions.
Eric Staal, now a member of the Minnesota Wild, held the ‘Canes captaincy for six seasons before his expiring contract resulted in a deadline deal to the New York Rangers. For conversation’s sake, one could entertain the idea of top scorer Jeff Skinner or senior-most member Ron Hainsey inheriting the Carolina C, but really this is a debate between two players: Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal, both of whom wore an A last season.
Leadership runs in the Staal family, and the 27-year-old Jordan has served as an alternate for eight consecutive seasons. Though an occasional subject of minor trade rumours, he’s signed through 2023—longer than any other Hurricane—and plays a significant role as a top-two centre. Surely, he would be ready to take his older brother’s position.
What we don’t know is Staal’s relationship with a management that dealt away his brother and inherited Staal from Jim Rutherford.
The American Faulk, 24, is arguably Carolina’s best player right now and heads up one of the most promising young D cores in the league. No other Hurricanes D-man is signed through 2020. If only because we have a hunch Staal could be traded at some point in the next three years, we’ll give Faulk a slight edge to become the Hurricanes’ sixth captain.
GM Ron Francis, however, reserves the right to stick with multiple alternates only.
“We’ll sit down as a staff and talk about it, but I’m comfortable heading into next season, if we don’t feel we have the right person for the long haul, leaving that position open and going with [alternates],” Francis told reporters. “But that will be something we talk about over the course of the summer.”
Connor McDavid, the Oilers’ best player and already one of the league’s best, will be named captain for 2016-17 after one year of Edmonton going with four alternates (Taylor Hall, Andrew Ference, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins). Surely anointing McDavid — who says and does all the right things — was the plan all along.
“I would think so, that we would have a captain next year,” GM Peter Chiarelli announced at season’s end.
McDavid is still a teenager, but he’s always been an early achiever.
“Why add that extra burden where he has to do every interview, pre-game and post-game?” Hockey Night in Canada host David Amber says. “I don’t think at 19 years old you need to put that on him. Certainly he’s going to be the captain, but I don’t think you have to anoint him now. People understand his role on the team already. He’s going to have a leadership role because of his skill set. I think you can wait a year.”
Maybe there’s an argument to delay, but this one is inevitable.
Let’s be clear: This should still be Willie Mitchell‘s team. Relentless on the ice, fearless and fun in the room, the 2015-16 captain was perfectly suited to the role. But a seventh concussion may have ended the veteran defenceman’s career.
The Panthers have plenty of experienced leadership to rely on, regardless of who wears the curved letter. Jaromir Jagr doesn’t want it. Roberto Luongo‘s balancing-act days with the dual role of goalie/captain are long gone. Respected depth centre Derek Mackenzie, 35, is signed through 2019 and the current alternate could be an excellent “bridge captain” if the newfangled power structure in Sunrise decides to delay the future.
Aaron Ekblad, my pick here, is only two years into this NHL thing, but the 2015 Calder winner and 2016 all-star will be the defensive force that leads a potential contender for the next nine years. The hopes for a title start with the highest-paid Panther. Smart, camera-savvy, strong-minded and talented, Ekblad is the only reasonable choice.
Before June’s bombshell, we figured the Preds wouldn’t have to worry about naming a new captain until, oh, about 2026.
But here we are, and a new stud defenceman is running Karaoke Night in Music City. As refreshing as the trade might be, P.K. Subban will have enough on his plate adapting to a new coach, a new system and a new set of teammates. We’d definitely give him an A but not the C — yet. Ditto Filip Forsberg, the 21-year-old star forward the Preds committed to for six years and $36 million.
Of 2015-16’s three alternates — Roman Josi, James Neal and Mike Fisher — two skated in the All-Star Game. Still, we’d take the 36-year-old Fisher, entering his seventh season in Nashville, on a one-year captaincy, with Josi eventually seizing the mantle.
“I think that he’s a potential captain, myself,” Poile told the Nashville Post of Josi. “He’s got a big influence. I think that the guys like him. I think that he really wants to win. I mean, he’s just the whole package. He’s a complete player and just a really good person and he does the right things. What’s there not to like about Roman?”
Head coach Peter Laviolette said he and Poile would discuss the open captaincy this summer.
“The two names everyone is talking about the most are Mike Fisher and Roman Josi,” says Nashville sports radio producer Ryan Porth. “He’s the ‘old guard’ in a locker room that is getting younger. He’s the calming veteran that has been through all the battles.
“The mostly prevailing thought, though, is that Josi is the captain for the future. I personally believe Filip Forsberg is better equipped to be that guy three or four years from now, depending on how P.K. Subban is received in the room.”
We would give Fisher the C short-term and observe the next generation — Josi, Forsberg, Subban, or a long-shot like Ryan Johansen and Ryan Ellis — for the best next choice.
“Whenever you lose leaders of your locker room, the quickness that you replace them [with] is important for you to maintain a really high competitive level,” coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after former captain David Backes signed with the Boston Bruins.
Over the next eight weeks, the Blues’ brain trust will examine its core and name a captain. Vladimir Tarasenko is the club’s most outstanding talent (and the face of NHL 17), but we’re betting he’ll only sport an A. This will be a debate between defenceman Alex Pietrangelo and forward Alexander Steen. Both have been alternates for years under Backes.
“We were hoping not to have to get to this point, so Ken and I and Mike [Yeo] and the whole staff will sit down and we’ll name our captain prior to training camp,” general manager Doug Armstrong said.
Our thinking? The elder Steen, 32, is probably the best choice for 2016-17, but he’s unsigned beyond that.
So we expect the Blues will side with the understated workhorse that is Pietrangelo. The 26-year-old backbone of the Blues’ D core is inked through 2020 and, according to the Post-Dispatch, he’s Backes’s pick too.
“All the guys in that room are leaders,” Backes said. “They were all captains, I’m sure, of their younger teams, and they all know what it takes. Maybe some were down the ranks [with the Blues] and are going to have to step up and get closer to the front of the pack, but they’re all capable. And with Steener and Petro probably leading the way, there’s plenty of leadership still in that room that they’ll be able to guide the troops.”
Of the NHL’s seven captain-less rosters, the Leafs offer the fewest slam-dunk candidates to assume the leadership mark. Judging by how early Dion Phaneuf was anointed and how heavily it weighed, we’re betting the Shanahan-Lamoriello-Babcock regime won’t rush to stitch a letter on anyone for 2016-17.
“I don’t see anything wrong with that. Not at all,” says former Leafs captain Rick Vaive. “You’re going to have a group of veterans who will be the spokespersons and eventually somebody younger will take over.”
Brooks Laich, 33, and Matt Hunwick, 31, would be your top veteran examples, but neither is signed beyond this season.
The “someone younger” could be No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews, but as mature as the 18-year-old is, he’ll be eased into the madness with a third-line role. (And, oh, yeah, he still needs a contract.) Lamoriello isn’t giving a teenager the C, no matter how skilled he is.
Our bet for the next one—which, let’s be frank, would’ve been Steven Stamkos had he wished to join a rebuild—is 22-year-old Morgan Rielly (but not until 2017). Vaive was 22 when he was assigned the captaincy; he says that was two years too early.
Another great Toronto captain, Wendel Clark, sees the leadership qualities of the outgoing and highly skilled Rielly, who played an integral role on Canada’s world championship squad in May.
“Rielly is one of your best role models,” Clark says. “He’s learned well and played hard. He’s still a young guy, but he’s got three years under his belt. He’s one of the main role models. He’s seen it. He was drafted here.”
Here’s the moment I believe Blake Wheeler solidified his claim to the Jets’ captaincy. During a game against Tampa Bay in February, back when Andrew Ladd still owned the C, Anton Stralman ran Bryan Little. Wheeler did not hesitate before reacting, immediately dropping his gloves and launching himself at Stralman in defence of his teammate. Watch:
Call it barbaric justice if you will, but that is the type of leadership teammates respect. Wheeler, 29, is coming off his best season, recording a team-high 78 points. He’s opinionated, tough and determined, and he should’ve been named to the All-Star Game.
“Regardless of what letter I have on my jersey, my role on the team and who I am with the team is not going to change,” Wheeler told the Winnipeg Free Press. “Last year was a big growing year for me, with [my] foot on the gas the whole time.”
Of the other core candidates, forget Dustin Byfuglien. There’s no way he wants to talk to the media daily.
Mark Scheifele‘s $49-million, max-term contract shows management’s belief in the emerging star, but he’s six years younger than Wheeler.
“I think a guy like Scheifele [would be good],” Nikolaj Ehlers offered after Ladd left. “He’s a young guy but he has a good, big mouth.”
Maybe later. For now, this is Wheeler’s ship to steer.