Top candidates to don the ‘C’ for NHL’s 10 captainless clubs

Boston Bruins left wing Brad Marchand (63) skates during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP Photo)

Two years ago, when Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney and president Cam Neely stood in front of their team and bestowed the captaincy on Patrice Bergeron, there were two jerseys in their hands, each with a “C” sewn above the spoked B.

One was adorned with Bergeron’s No. 37, the other with Brad Marchand’s No. 63. The room was all laughs as Marchand got up to accept his gag jersey before handing the real thing to his longtime teammate. But amid applause and a round of handshakes, Bergeron gestured to his linemate during his ensuing speech. “There are a lot of guys who deserve a letter,” he’d said then.

Now, it seems Marchand’s time has come. Late last month, with the announcement that Bergeron was hanging up the dream and ending his big-league career, the Bruins’ captaincy became vacant once more. And with the departure of fellow veteran David Krejci, who retired last week, Marchand appears the most likely heir. Still, the choice won’t be a simple one, with the changing of the guard also granting the Bruins brass an opportunity to begin the next era for their club, perhaps led by young stalwart Charlie McAvoy or MVP candidate David Pastrnak.

Boston is one of a number clubs mulling that decision as the 2023-24 season approaches. Nine others similarly head into the new campaign without a captain — for some, another year of growth is needed before a leader can emerge; for others, a new leader will be crowned to lead the club forward before the new season begins.

That being the case, here’s a look at our most likely candidates to join the elite group who can say they’ve worn the “C” at the sport’s highest level.

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks have been without a captain since longtime leader Ryan Getzlaf retired. After a trio of players shared the burden as alternates in 2022-23, defenceman Cam Fowler seems the most likely candidate to officially take over the captaincy. The 31-year-old enters the coming season as the longest-tenured Duck, is one of the most senior players on the squad and a vital piece of the team’s success moving forward, having led the group with 24 minutes of ice per night last season. Still, the decision won’t be cut-and-dried — there’s also young leader Troy Terry, who’s fresh off signing on long-term with the club; Trevor Zegras, who’s quickly becoming one of the game’s most dynamic offensive talents; and fellow young gun Mason McTavish, who’s demonstrated his ability to lead on the international stage.

Arizona Coyotes

Arizona has played the past two seasons without a captain after Oliver Ekman-Larsson was traded to Vancouver. Clayton Keller and Lawson Crouse shared duties as alternates last season, and the pair seem the leading candidates to take the “C.” After a career season in 2022-23 that saw Keller flirt with the 40-goal, 90-point plateaus, the 25-year-old seemed to plant the flag as the club’s leader and marquee talent. There are other veterans and other young talents waiting in the wings, but at this point, the Coyotes appear to be Keller’s team.

Boston Bruins

Like we said, the clear choice seems Marchand, the last holdover from the 2011 championship squad and a leadership group that’s guided the Bruins’ locker room for the past decade. If not No. 63, McAvoy seems the clear choice, the 25-year-old having blossomed into one of the best defenders in the game, and similarly a vital part of the squad that ran rampant over the league during the 2022-23 regular season. Some among the Bruins faithful have already wondered whether it’s McAvoy who will be leading the team going forward, given the blue-liner’s comments in the club’s goodbye video to Bergeron. “What you built here is special,” McAvoy said. “I promise I’ll do everything I can to take good care of it.”

Calgary Flames

The Flames’ situation is more complicated. Calgary finds itself caught between eras, its new marquee forwards getting off to a rocky start last season and rumours of other franchise stalwarts considering a move out of town. Longtime leader Mikael Backlund seems the most obvious choice to don the “C,” the longest-tenured Flame having been with the team so long, his first game came with franchise legend Jarome Iginla and current GM Craig Conroy as teammates. The key hangup, of course, is that Backlund’s future with the team is in doubt — the 34-year-old is unsigned beyond next season, and a few months removed from publicly mulling whether he’ll continue with the franchise. If the centreman remains, he’s the top choice to follow in Iginla and Mark Giordano’s footsteps. If not, fellow 2022-23 alternates Jonathan Huberdeau and Chris Tanev, along with Nazem Kadri, seem next up.

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Chicago Blackhawks

On the far other end of the spectrum is Chicago, which saw the leaders of its previous leadership group move on from the club over the past year, and now head firmly into a new era. There is only one choice for the franchise’s future captain — he’ll be given time before assuming that role, but Chicago is Connor Bedard country now, and the young phenom will surely wear the “C” for the team at some point over the next few years. It’s worth remembering Chicago handed Jonathan Toews the captaincy in just his second season, making him, at the time, the youngest in the league to wear the letter. It would be no surprise to see the organization follow a similar path with its new young talisman.

Philadelphia Flyers

While the Flyers find themselves in flux, and set for another uphill battle in the Metropolitan Division, they did get one piece of much-needed good news concerning the new season: Sean Couturier is coming back. After multiple back surgeries sidelined his career, keeping the two-way talent off the ice for much of 2021-22 and all of 2022-23, Couturier is healthy and ready to return, according to the team. If he is able to return to the level he was long known for, the Selke Trophy winner will also surely be the top choice to take over as the 20th captain in Flyers history, succeeding long-time teammate Claude Giroux. It would be a triumphant return for the veteran pivot after a difficult couple years, and an important step forward for the wayward Flyers.

Seattle Kraken

The Kraken have had just one captain in their short history — Mark Giordano was handed the “C” for the club’s inaugural season, but wound up being moved at the trade deadline, the captaincy left vacant since. The next captain figures to be someone who will be around for the foreseeable future, a pivotal piece to the Kraken’s long-term project. Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde, Adam Larsson and Jaden Schwartz shared duties as alternates last season. But two others arguably seem the more likely candidates to be handed the honour: Matty Beniers and Jared McCann. The former proved himself as a franchise cornerstone with a Calder-winning effort last season, while McCann — one of only a handful of players signed for more than two or three years — has been the heart of Seattle’s offence through the club’s first two seasons, and led the way with a dominant 40-goal, 70-point effort last season.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues, like the Bruins, have a choice between two different directions to take the franchise. On one hand, veterans Colton Parayko and Brayden Schenn both are worthwhile options, the pair being the most impactful remaining pieces of the club’s 2019 championship team after the departures of Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and David Perron. It was Parayko and Schenn who wore A’s for the club last season, as O’Reilly — who served as captain for the past three seasons — was traded away at the deadline. And long-time league veteran leaders with former clubs, Justin Faulk and Torey Krug, are also in the mix on that side of the scale. On the other hand, perhaps it’s time for a true changing of the guard in St. Louis, and with young stars Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas inked long-term, their names are sure to be on the table, too.

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Vancouver Canucks

The decision in Vancouver comes down to two names: Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and either would be a worthy choice to have the “C” stitched to their sweater. Both young talents have been central contributors for the club since they debuted, and both took their games to new heights this past season, Pettersson putting forth a career 39-goal, 102-point campaign to lead the club in scoring, while Hughes amassed 76 points in 78 games from the back end while logging a team-leading 25 minutes a night. Of course, Pettersson still needs to sign a new extension with the franchise, as the 24-year-old is unsigned past 2023-24. But as long as the pair of young phenoms remain in Vancouver, they figure to lead the club forward together, regardless of which of the two is officially named captain — a familiar setup for the Canucks faithful.

Winnipeg Jets

Much is still be determined for the future of the Jets. The club’s already seen a few members of its core move on, while leaders Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck find their names mired in trade rumours, too. But beyond the chaos, two franchise stalwarts figure to be key pieces, regardless: Adam Lowry and Josh Morrissey. From afar, Scheifele seems the frontrunner to succeed Blake Wheeler as captain. But after two straight summers of questioning his future in Winnipeg, No. 55 would be an uncertain choice. The two teammates who shared alternate duties with him this past season, though, seem like worthwhile choices to step into that role: Lowry, a heart-and-soul leader who’s given his all in Winnipeg for the past decade, or Morrissey, a homegrown talent who’s built himself into one of the game’s best blue-liners, and a central cog in the Jets machine. Either way, the decision figures to be an important turning of the page for the Jets.

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