What is leadership, exactly?
It’s difficult to quantify, and as a result there’s always a debate as to how important this phantom quality is to a successful sports team. It’s true that most teams that win the Stanley Cup are led by a good captain, but is the team better because of that fact, or is the captain considered to be good because his team is also good? It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg situation.
For today’s list I went ahead and looked back at all the men who’ve worn the C throughout the NHL over the past decade. What I found was a list of strong, reliable leaders who could be counted on when it matters—for the most part. There were a handful of names that somewhat surprised me, however, and that’s what today’s list is all about: the 15 worst captains in the NHL over the past decade.
Most of the players appearing on this list captained terrible squads, so perhaps it’s not their leadership qualities that sunk their teams. Nevertheless they were at the helm for some or all of their team’s ineptitude, ergo they earned a spot on the list. Enjoy:
15 Derek MacKenzie - Florida Panthers
Our list kicks off with Derek MacKenzie, who is actually the current captain of the Florida Panthers. Looking at the Panthers’ roster, it’s safe to say that the 36-year-old is just keeping the seat warm for the next captain, which is likely to be Aaron Ekblad—although Aleksander Barkov or Jonathan Huberdeau are tantalizing candidates as well.
MacKenzie is probably a great leader in the room, which is likely why he wears the C. It’s not that you need your captain to be your best player, but it would be nice if you could play him more than 10 minutes a night confidently. MacKenzie has entered the twilight of his career and could probably benefit from a lighter schedule—meaning a few nights in the press box here and there. There’s the problem—how do you healthy scratch your captain?
14 Ethan Moreau - Edmonton Oilers
Ethan Moreau spent longer than a decade with the Oilers when it was all said and done, spending his last three seasons with the team as captain. He was the obvious choice when he took the reins from the departed Jason Smith in 2007, but things didn’t go well for the Oilers pretty much immediately afterwards, and Moreau went down with the ship.
Injuries plagued Moreau pretty much immediately after getting the C. He missed 57 games in his first season as the club’s leader thanks to an ankle injury, and that was immediately after playing in only seven games the season prior. There’s only so much a captain can do when on the IR, which is where Moreau spent most of his time as Edmonton’s captain.
13 Jason Spezza - Ottawa Senators
When Daniel Alfredsson left Ottawa for the Red Wings in the 2013 offseason, he left a vacancy in the captain’s seat in the nation’s capital. The Sens decided to fill the void with superstar Jason Spezza. The move made sense at the time, as he was probably the best player on the roster and had been with the club full-time since 2003-04.
At the time Spezza had just two years remaining on his contract with the Senators, but the club was optimistic they’d be able to re-up Spezza. Unfortunately for all involved, the Sens had an underwhelming 2013-14 season, missing the postseason. Spezza subsequently requested a trade out of town, a move that exhibits a lack of dedication to your team—not a great attribute for a captain.
12 Chris Clark - Washington Capitals
Chris Clark held the captaincy in Washington prior to Alexander Ovechkin, and having never been in a locker room with Chris Clark, I can only assume it's because he was good for team morale. That’s the only reason I can come up with as to why Clark was ever captain of an NHL team. It certainly wasn’t for his on-ice performances, as he was relatively ineffective when not out with an injury.
Clark played 74 games in his first year as captain, but after that the most he played during his four-year stint at the helm was 38 (and that was a year he split the honors with Ovechkin). His production fell off a cliff after his first year as captain as well; he managed 54 points in 2006-07, but then recorded just nine, six, and 15 points in each of the next three seasons, respectively.
11 Zach Parise - New Jersey Devils
Zach Parise served as captain of the New Jersey Devils for just one season, and the club just so happened to make it to the Stanley Cup Final that season. You’re probably wondering why I’ve named Parise as one of the worst captains of the last decade; after all, he’s led his team to the Cup Finals 100% of the time he’s served as captain.
That’s an unarguably strong ratio, but when you consider how Parise followed up the performance, it’s fairly easy to see why he is on this list. Parise became a free agent upon the completion of that season, and rather than re-signing with the team that drafted him, he defected to his home state of Minnesota. Although it's nothingm ore than a rumor, the Devils were reported to have offered Parise the same deal he signed in Minnesota.
10 Bryan McCabe - Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers named Bryan McCabe team captain to start the 2009-10 season, after he’d played just one year with the franchise. McCabe was a tried and true veteran, having played 917 NHL games before even arriving in the Sunshine state in 2008. McCabe wasn’t exactly known for his leadership skills, but at 34 years old he was the second-oldest player on the team, so why not?
The Panthers were a franchise in desperate need of a jolt at the time, and as it turned out McCabe wasn’t really the guy to provide the much-needed spark. To be fair the roster that the Panthers were throwing out on the ice was the biggest problem here, but with that said there are a few other names that probably would have been better choices (Dennis Seidenberg, to name one, was there until being dealt at the deadline).
9 Thomas Vanek - Buffalo Sabres
Of the 15 captains who appear on this list, Thomas Vanek’s tenure in the captain’s seat was by far the shortest. Vanek took the captaincy in Buffalo to start the 2013-14 season, taking over for the recently departed Jason Pominville. When it became clear that the Sabres would be unable to re-sign Vanek, they traded him to the Islanders just 13 games into his career as team captain.
This was a classic case of simply handing the captaincy to your best player without taking into consideration important factors like contract term and commitment level. The fact that the Sabres felt they better trade Vanek before losing him for nothing says a lot about how committed he was to Buffalo, so why on Earth was he given the C to begin with?
8 Ilya Kovalchuk - Atlanta Thrashers
Ilya Kovalchuk took the captaincy in Atlanta to start the 2008-09 season, taking over for grizzled veteran Bobby Holik. Kovalchuk had been with the club for his whole career to that point, and he was easily their best player, so handing the C to Kovy was really only as matter of time. The Russian only spent two years as captain before being traded to New Jersey due to a contract dispute, and that’s why he ends up on this list.
Prior to being dealt, Kovalchuk was reportedly offered a 12-year deal with the Thrashers that would have earned him north of $100M, yet he turned it down. This goes to show that perhaps Kovalchuk wasn’t entirely committed to the team he was captaining. Sure, he was still looking for his first career playoff win at the time, but still. Good captains go down with the ship!
7 Rick Nash - Columbus Blue Jackets
Rick Nash is yet another player who shows up on this list based on the fact that he abandoned ship in dark times. Remember back in 2012 when that captain abandoned the Costa Concordia while it sunk off shore Italy in the Mediterranean? Well, that captain (Francesco Schettino, for those who care) was basically just doing his best Rick Nash impression.
Nash was the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise since the day they called his name first overall in 2002. In fairness to Nash, the Jackets were never quite able to put it all together while he was with the squad, so I could see how he might have been frustrated. Somewhat ironically, taking Nash out of the equation seemed to help the Jackets, who have now been a decent squad for several seasons, partly thanks to the assets brought back in the Nash deal.
6 Ryan Callahan - New York Rangers
I’m not saying that every captain has to take a hometown discount when it comes time to renew his contract, but that being said the captain shouldn’t hold his team hostage either. I’d argue that was basically what Ryan Callahan was doing when he demanded a long-term contract worth north of $6M per season as he approached free agency in 2013-14.
The Rangers wisely refused to give Callahan that kind of money, and he was subsequently shipped off to Tampa as part of the infamous Martin St. Louis deal. Callahan’s agent ended up convincing GM Steve Yzerman to sign him to a similar contract he had demanded in New York, and his production fell off a cliff shortly thereafter, justifying the Rangers’ decision to let the captain go.
5 Andrew Ference - Edmonton Oilers
I’d like to make one thing clear here: Andrew Ference was a great off-ice leader during his time as captain of the Oilers, and he even earned recognition for this when he was awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2014. That said, what you do on the ice is more important for sure, and Ference was pretty much finished by the time he arrived in Edmonton.
The defenseman served as team captain for perhaps the darkest hours in the history of the franchise—you all remember Dallas Eakins, I’m sure—so it’s fair to say he was never really put in a position to succeed. Still though, when you are the captain of the league’s worst team and you still aren’t good enough to crack the roster every night (as was the case towards the end of Ference’s tenure), that’s a problem.
4 Dion Phaneuf - Toronto Maple Leafs
Sometimes a player simply doesn’t have the right personality to lead a team as captain, and from an outsider’s perspective that seemed to be the biggest hurdle for Dion Phaneuf in Toronto. He never seemed fit for the burden of speaking to the media night after night during some tough years in Toronto.
Phaneuf’s contract became a hot-button issue during his tenure in the Center of the Universe as the losses piled high, and luckily Lou Lamoriello was able to trick the Senators into taking on the expensive underperformer. The Leafs haven’t filled the captain’s seat that was vacated with Phaneuf’s departure in 2016, but needless to say whoever takes over the role will have an easier time than Phaneuf did, as the club is actually competitive now.
3 Alexei Yashin - New York Islanders
Okay, I admit that this is sort of cheating because the last season that Alexei Yashin held the captaincy was 2006-07, and that just misses the 10-year cut-off. That being said, Yashin was such a terrible choice as captain that I had to include him on the list here. Credit where it’s due, the Islanders recognized this fact and chose to buyout the remainder of Yashin’s contract at the end of that season.
As a result of this buyout Yashin’s name could be found on the Isles’ payroll through 2014-15, long after Yashin had returned home. He played five seasons in the KHL after the buyout, collecting his cheque bi-weekly for eight years beyond his actual NHL career. That stung the pocketbook of notorious owner Charles Wang, who made sure people knew about it.
2 Roberto Luongo - Vancouver Canucks
I’ll start by saying this is in no way a slam against Bobby-Lu, but rather an indictment of the team itself. Who makes their goalie team captain? First off, he can’t leave his crease to discuss things with the officials. Secondly, an extremely busy goalie plays only 60-65 games per season, so even if your captain is healthy all year you’re going captain-less for 15 or 20 games as it is.
Luckily the Canucks learned the error of their ways and changed the captaincy to Henrik Sedin in 2010 after Luongo held the role for two seasons. The Canucks turned into an NHL powerhouse shortly after this, so most people easily forgot the lunacy of the ‘Nucks captain situation, but I certainly did not and will not.
1 Mike Richards - Philadelphia Flyers
If the rumors are to be believed, being a Philadelphia Flyer from approximately 2008 to 2011 was a pretty good time. Led by captain Mike Richards, the party culture in the City of Brotherly Love was strong—so strong, in fact, that head coach Peter Laviolette reportedly banned his players from drinking alcohol at one point.
Richards and teammate Jeff Carter were apparently having absolutely none of this, and they refused to abide by the rule. Look, I get it. I like to imbibe from time to time—who doesn’t?—but really, Mike? Your coach implements a team rule and you, as captain, refuse to follow it? This was the number one reason Richards and Carter were shipped out, and in the end the trades were actually great for the Flyers, as that was how they got Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and Brayden Schenn.