“C” of Change in NHL

Five teams looking for new captains for 2009-10

01.08.2009
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Joe Sakic (right, with Ray Bourque and the Stanley Cup) leaves a big hole at Colorado. Photo: Dave Sandford / Hockey Hall of Fame

There are more European captains in the NHL right now than there are American (five to four), and although 16 of the 30 teams boast a Canadian leader these numbers will be adjusted in the next several weeks as five teams look to find the man to lead their respective squads to the ice every night.

Indeed, one of the greatest captains of all time, Joe Sakic in Colorado, has just retired, leaving a huge void in the Avalanche lineup as the 2009-10 season approaches.

And who could possibly imagine that the two oldest and greatest NHL teams – and most bitter rivals – would both be looking for a leader? Montreal allowed longtime captain Saku Koivu to leave, and Toronto was without a full-time captain last year after the departure of its longtime European leader, Mats Sundin.

As well, the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers are also looking for the perfect “C” man for the new NHL season.

A general manager will always talk about building his team from the crease out.

First, find a goalie who can give your team a chance to win every night. Then, get some defencemen who dominate on the blueline. Only then do you need to worry about scoring and skill up front.

However, along the way to building such a team, a GM is always cognizant of the fact that he needs a leader. He needs a player who commands respect on the ice, both from his teammates and opponents.

He needs a leader who has a presence in the dressing room – either a rah rah Messier type or a quiet Yzerman type. He needs a player who represents and embodies the team, a man who is, literally, the face of the team.

A GM will always observe that no team has ever won the Stanley Cup without a great goalie, which is true. But he rarely says – he rarely HAS TO say – that a team also never wins the Cup without strong leadership.

Think of the captains who have won the Cup during the last 30 years and more – Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey, Bryan Trottier, Wayne Gretzky, Lanny McDonald, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Yzerman, Sakic, Nicklas Lidström. All hall of famers or future hall of famers.

Sidney Crosby added his name to this list just a few weeks ago, and at 21 years of age, the youngest Cup-winning captain in NHL history, he is on the road to the hall as well.

Captains can be categorized by circumstance. There is, for instance, the career captain, the superstar who is so clearly the team’s best offensive player and who wants to stay in one city for a long time. It’s a no-brainer to name Yzerman, Sakic, or Lemieux team captain. Ditto for Jarome Iginla in Calgary, Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta, Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa, or Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay.

Then there is the transitional captain, a very good player on a team trying to define itself, a player who brings a certain degree of short-term respect to the team toward the end of his career, during a short stay with the team, or during a period of transition until a more appropriate captain comes along. Think Jamie Langenbrunner in New Jersey, Ethan Moreau in Edmonton, Chris Drury with the Rangers, Mikko Koivu in Minnesota.

And there are the young guns, the faces of the future, the new Yzermans and Sakics who hope to carry their teams to glory. Think of Crosby in Pittsburgh, Dustin Brown in Los Angeles, Mike Richards in Philadelphia, Jonathan Toews in Chicago.

A captain can also be a solid player on a team with a great player who doesn’t need or want the added responsibility of being captain. Think Chris Clark in Washington (to save stress on Alexander Ovechkin) or Brenden Morrow in Dallas (to save the less ambitious Mike Modano).

No matter how you slice it, a captain’s role on the team is critical to success. Teams that have alternated or rotated captains, or simply done without one, have rarely fared particularly well. The only exception might be the Boston Bruins of the early 1970s when it did without one. But on a team with Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, and a host of other incredible stars, leadership came in many, many forms.

And so five teams over the next couple of months will be looking to find that leader. Some will find a star to build a team around for the role. Perhaps, for instance, Colorado will think of Paul Stastny as the team’s future, and give him the added honour and responsibility?

Other teams will look for a short-term solution until the real captain appears. The Leafs, for instance, see 19-year-old Luke Schenn as a captain, but surely not for at least two or three years still. And the Islanders absolutely must consider John Tavares as their future “C” man, but certainly not this coming year when the 18-year-old tries only to make the team.

And what about the Canadiens, a team whose captain selection has historically represented almost a guaranteed path to the Hockey Hall of Fame? Who on the current Habs’ roster can follow in the footsteps of Henri Richard, Bob Gainey, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey?

And for Florida, a team trying to earn respect while fighting for its survival after losing Jay Bouwmeester this summer, who will it look to? Nathan Horton? Stephen Weiss? Cory Stillman? The choice is critical.

It’s only one player and one simple letter, the third of the alphabet, but the “C” is a mighty important part of a team’s chemistry.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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