DALLAS – Is this going to be the year?
With a new NHL season underway, there are feelings of optimism in almost every single room, whether a team has championship aspirations or is distinctly in the heart of a rebuild.
Throughout parts of the hockey world, especially those across the 49th parallel, the sentence finishes with…a Canadian team finally wins the Stanley Cup again – ending the drought that has extended since the Montreal Canadiens last raised the silver mug in 1993.
Certainly there are a few candidates with lofty expectations, but that’s a question to dig into another day, long after the small sample size data has morphed into the quarter point or midway point of the campaign.
Today’s primary topic of this column, which will be appearing in this space weekly over the course of the season, will address whether NHL teams might actually be moving away from the long-standing tradition of having a captain and are spreading out the leadership responsibilities.
As things currently stand, six of the 32 teams are going with alternates only.
Going alphabetically, the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers, Seattle Kraken and Winnipeg, are those six clubs.
Some of those teams are in transition, having traded or moved on from the previous player wearing the C.
Clearly, there are candidates emerging in many of those markets, but the Jets are an example of a team that made the choice to move from more of a singular voice to a collective – or shared responsibility – when incoming head coach Rick Bowness stripped Blake Wheeler of the captaincy the week before training camp opened.
The Jets letter carriers will be returning alternates Mark Scheifele and Josh Morrissey, along with Adam Lowry but Bowness made it clear he’s looking for players throughout the lineup to take ownership.
“We want the broader, we don’t want the group, we don’t want two or three guys. We want 20, or whoever is playing that night,” Bowness said earlier this week. “What we’re trying to get away from is exactly that. We don’t have a leadership group. We have a committee. That committee is the whole team. “This is what we wanted when we did what we did, and we’re getting there. Whatever has gone on here, I don’t care, it’s gone. The only thing that matters is right now. Right now that room is in a good place. That’s all that matters. We can’t keep drilling up the past, it’s gone. We don’t want a leadership group. We want the team to take over, and they’re doing that.”
The message from the top has clearly been received.
“We want everyone to feel like they have a part of this team. So I think that’s going to be an important message we carry forward,” said Lowry. “Everyone’s voice is important in this room.”
It was a bold move made by Bowness, but was not done without precedent.
The Los Angeles Kings transitioned the captaincy from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar, while the San Jose Sharks went from Patrick Marleau to Joe Thornton to Joe Pavelski.
Sometimes there is a logical replacement in-house and other times, there’s a strong candidate that emerges after a free-agent signing or trade.
The important thing to remember is that leadership can’t be forced, even if leadership styles can vary from the rah-rah type to a lead by example player – and everything in between.
The last team to get to the Stanley Cup final without a captain was the Vegas Golden Knights, the original misfits group from the expansion draft operated well with that distinct ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality.
Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt was part of that leadership group and while he admits there were extenuating circumstances in the case of the Golden Knights, he also recognizes the value of spreading the responsibility around as a way to encourage every player to have a voice and not be afraid to use it.
“It’s a unique circumstance. You’re starting from scratch, you get to decide as 20 guys what you want. That’s not going to happen every day. You’re not going to put 20 new guys in a locker room every year,” said Schmidt. “We just didn’t really have one person. It makes a difference. We went three or four years I think without a captain. It takes a lot of burden off a lot of guys because a lot of guys shoulder it then. It’s not just one guy, two guys, or three guys. It’s 10 guys, it’s eight guys that kind of shoulder it and bring it together.”
Some of those aforementioned teams are teams in transition, while others still have their sights on winning it all.
So while it’s still a bit too early to put too much stock in this becoming more of a trend, it’s going to be an interesting case study as well.
And since the NHL has been known to be a bit of a copy-cat league when it comes to styles and systems, it’s possible this ends up being something that becomes a bit more prominent down the road – especially if one of the teams without a guy wearing the C actually gets to drink from Lord Stanley’s mug this spring.
The goal of this column is to take a spin around the league and look at issues and storylines that emerge beyond the traditional box score and summary and there will probably be some weekly features that emerge, but if you’ve got some thoughts on what you’d like to see discussed in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAINE SIDELINED: The Columbus Blue Jackets got the attention of the hockey world this off-season by signing left-winger Johnny Gaudreau and retaining the services of Patrik Laine on a four-year deal.
Laine started the season off on a great note, sniping a goal 11 seconds into the second period but his night ended early when he went awkwardly into the boards while battling for a puck in the offensive zone with Carolina Hurricanes D-man Brett Pesce.
The Blue Jackets reported that Laine is expected to miss three-to-four weeks with an elbow injury.
That timeline will definitely put the Global Series games against the Colorado Avalanche at Nokia Arena in Tampere in jeopardy for Laine.
When the Jets travelled to Helsinki for a Global Series set against Aleksander Barkov and the Florida Panthers, Laine recorded a hat trick in a 4-2 victory in the first of two meetings in his home country.
On an unrelated but important note, Laine put together a great initiative this season, where he is donating $1,000 for every point he collects this season to the Community Shelter Board to combat homelesssness in Columbus, Ohio.
IMMEDIATE IMPACT: The death of long-time NHLer Bryan Marchment rocked the hockey world, something that was evident as the tributes poured out during the 2022 NHL Draft in Montreal and beyond.
Marchment’s son Mason signed with the Dallas Stars (four years, $18 million, $4.5 million AAV) during the offseason in what was one of those somewhat under-the-radar moves that could pay big dividends.
The 27-year-old is coming off a campaign where he produced career-highs in goals (18), assists (29) and points (47) and he’s already delivered three goals in his first two games with the Stars, including a highlight-reel marker against the Nashville Predators on Thursday that saw him go end-to-end, make a slippery toe-drag in the neutral zone before going bar down on goalie Jusse Saros.
The Stars were far too reliant on the top line of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski last season, so Marchment is going to be asked to help diversify the offensive attack.
As for teams looking for additional scoring, the Predators are sure to be happy with the output of fellow free agent winger Nino Niederreiter, who inked a two-year pact worth $8 million ($4 million AAV).
After spending parts of four seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes – which included consecutive seasons of 20 goals or more (and a 20-plus goal pace after his arrival in a trade with the Wild in 2018-19) – Niederreiter has four goals in four games for a Predators team looking for some additional scoring punch up front of their own.
EARLY REVENGE GAME: Score one for Kevin Fiala, who was traded to the Los Angeles Kings by the Minnesota Wild, who loved the winger but simply could not find a way to fit his new contract under the salary cap with those penalties on the books for the buyouts to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Fiala went to a team that pushed the Edmonton Oilers during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but needed some additional scorer.
After securing Fiala’s services with a seven-year deal worth $55.125 and carries an AAV of $7.87 million, the 11th overall pick of the 2011 NHL Draft (by the Nashville Predators) went back to Xcel Energy Center on Saturday night and had a goal and two assists.
STICK TAP: To the NHL schedule maker. It’s not often a player in the visiting jersey gets to take part in a banner raising celebration, but as the Colorado Avalanche raised their championship banner on Wednesday night, Chicago Blackhawks blue-liner Jack Johnson joined his former teammates on the ice to soak it all in.
Having spoken to Johnson on the ice after the Avalanche captured the Stanley Cup in Game 6 in Tampa last spring, you can be sure he appreciated the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishment before the game began. The Avalanche faced the Flames the next night, which meant Nazem Kadri didn’t have to wait long to receive his championship ring.
Speaking of the celebrations, great touch by the Avalanche to have Mark Hoppus of Blink 182 on hand to lead the fans at Ball Arena for a rousing edition of All The Small Things. It’s a song Avalanche supporters are going to have in their heads for a long time and it will always represent the culmination of a magical playoff run.
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL: Since it’s the start of a new campaign, silly season is upon us when it comes to the prediction game.
It’s always interesting trying to find the balance between going for the safe choice versus the bold one and since the unpredictability of the sport is such a big part of the fun, sometimes you just have to throw something out there and hope for the best.
For the third consecutive season, it’s an honour to be among those tasked with providing an educated guess for the trophy winners and Stanley Cup finalists.
My full list has been provided below and we can circle back to check those receipts and discuss around the midway point of the season when things are coming into clearer focus.
Team questions (tops in regular season)
Atlantic Division: Toronto Maple Leafs
Metro Division: Carolina Hurricanes
Pacific Division: Edmonton Oilers
Central Division: Colorado Avalanche
Conference champions: Colorado Avalanche over Calgary Flames in six games, Carolina Hurricanes over Columbus Blue Jackets in six games.
Stanley Cup winner: Colorado Avalanche in five games.
Team most likely to exceed expectations: Columbus Blue Jackets
Team most likely to disappoint: Boston Bruins
Hart: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Art Ross: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Calder: Kent Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets
Norris: Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
Vezina: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
Jack Adams: Brad Larsen, Columbus Blues Jackets
How many points will the Art Ross winner score?: 119
How many goals will the Rocket Richard winner score?: 61
Which team will Patrick Kane be on after the trade deadline?: New York Rangers
Which Canadian team will finish with the most regular-season points?: Toronto Maple Leafs
Feel free to send along your favourite predictions and don’t hesitate to let me know which of mine you disagree with, but be sure to include the reason why.
Enjoy your week and thanks for reading.