Leadership is one of the few intangibles in hockey that still can’t be quantified by any of the cutting-edge advanced statistics. Without seeing what happens in the locker room behind closed doors, how exactly do you evaluate one’s leadership skills?
Furthermore, there are two types of leaders, and it’s tough to say which is more valuable. There’s the one who leads by example and repeatedly comes up big in the direst of moments—think Joe Sakic for this brand of leader. Then there’s the other type, who has the innate ability to fire up his whole team and shift the momentum of a series with a big hit or timely scrap—think Scott Stevens for this brand.
No matter which type of leader you feel is more valuable, one thing is unarguable: you don’t win in the NHL without strong leadership. Leaders don’t necessarily have to wear the “C” on their chest to exercise their abilities, but if a player proves to be a strong enough leader over time then he’ll eventually be wearing a letter if he sticks around the league long enough.
Today’s list salutes the best captain that each NHL team has had in its history. Some teams were tougher to pick than others of course, especially considering that some teams have nearly a century’s worth of captains to choose from. Only one player appears on the list twice. Can you guess who it is?
30 Anaheim Ducks - Scott Niedermayer
Scott Niedermayer served as captain of the Ducks for four seasons from 2005-06 to 2009-10. He was replaced by Chris Pronger for one season (2007-08) as Niedermayer contemplated retirement for the first half of the season, but he got the “C” back the next season and held onto it until he retired.
29 Arizona Coyotes - Shane Doan
This was a tough choice overall, but in the end it had to be Shane Doan. The franchise leader in games played, goals, and points has played his entire career with the franchise, starting as a fresh-faced rookie in Winnipeg in 1995-96.
28 Boston Bruins - Ray Bourque
It was tough to pick the Bruins' best all-time captain, as the original six club has had all kinds of great leaders. I decided to go with Ray Bourque for the B’s, despite the fact that he never won with Boston and defected to Colorado at the end of his career to win his only Stanley Cup.
27 Buffalo Sabres - Gilbert Perreault
The Buffalo Sabres were founded in 1970, and they are still searching for their first Stanley Cup as a franchise. They’ve had a handful of capable leaders who’ve done their best to get them over the hump, not the least of which is franchise points leader Gilbert Perreault.
26 Calgary Flames - Jarome Iginla
In the introduction to this article I mentioned there are the two different types of leaders: the ones who lead by example, and the ones who amp up the rest of their team and take them to the next level. Jarome Iginla was the best of both worlds during his time in Calgary.
25 Carolina Hurricanes - Rod Brind’Amour
This one was a tough call, as it came down to either Rod Brind’Amour or legend Ron Francis. Brind’Amour eventually tipped the scales by leading the 2006 Hurricanes to the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup championship.
24 Chicago Blackhawks - Jonathan Toews
Jonathan Toews was named captain of the Blackhawks immediately following the conclusion of his rookie season in 2008. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, picking up three Stanley Cup championships and a Conn Smythe Trophy while wearing the “C”.
23 Colorado Avalanche - Joe Sakic
When you look for guys who lead by example, Joe Sakic is exhibit A. Sakic played his entire career with the same franchise—he was drafted by the Nordiques in the 1987 draft, and made the move with the club to Colorado in 1995.
22 Columbus Blue Jackets - Adam Foote
The Columbus Blue Jackets haven’t experienced a lot of success as a franchise, and one of the many reasons for that is they have never really had a true leader wear the “C”. Adam Foote represents the Jackets on this list, almost by default.
21 Dallas Stars - Derian Hatcher
The Dallas Stars were one of the league’s most dominant teams in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and Derian Hatcher served as team captain for that entire duration. Hatcher was an intimidating force on the Stars blue line, and he led the club to its only Stanley Cup win in 1999.
20 Detroit Red Wings - Steve Yzerman
Steve Yzerman is the longest serving captain in NHL history, having worn the “C” in Detroit for 19 seasons. That’s a record that may never be broken, although Jonathan Toews, Gabriel Landeskog, Sidney Crosby and maybe even Connor McDavid are poised to challenge it.
19 Edmonton Oilers - Mark Messier
If you ask any hockey fan who the best captain of all time was, I would bet nearly 50 percent of them would say Mark Messier. Mess served as captain of the Oilers for three seasons from 1988 to 1991. He took over for Wayne Gretzky after owner Peter Pocklington sold the Great One to the Kings.
18 Florida Panthers - Scott Mellanby
The Florida Panthers don’t have a lot of history to draw from, and the years they do have in the book have yielded little success (aside from one fairytale run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996). They’ve had a few decent leaders, however, the best of which was Scott Mellanby.
17 Los Angeles Kings - Dustin Brown
It was tough to pick the Kings' best captain, because they’ve had both Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille at the helm. Dustin Brown beats them both out, though, on the strength of his two Stanley Cup championships while wearing the “C”.
16 Minnesota Wild - Mikko Koivu
The Minnesota Wild employed a strange system for the first seven years of existence; they passed the captaincy around on a month-to-month basis. They finally realized how silly this was and handed the letter permanently to Mikko Koivu in 2009.
15 Montreal Canadiens - Jean Beliveau
Needless to say, Montreal had a lot of attractive options for this list, but when I looked at the full docket one name jumped out at me, and that name was the late great Jean Beliveau.
14 Nashville Predators - Shea Weber
Another current captain, Shea Weber is completing the tail end of his sixth season as leader of the Preds. That already makes him the longest serving captain in team history, and there’s reason to believe he will stay in the role for another decade or longer.
13 New Jersey Devils - Scott Stevens
Of course if Scott Stevens played in today’s NHL he’d likely be vilified as a ruthless headshot artist, but he’s still the best captain the New Jersey Devils have ever had. How could he not be? He served as captain for all three Devils Cup wins.
12 New York Islanders - Denis Potvin
Again, when one player has served as captain for all of a franchise’s Stanley Cups, you really can’t give the distinction of “best captain” to anyone else. Denis Potvin led the dynasty-New York Islanders to four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983, and he scored over 1,000 points from the back end for the Isles in total.
11 New York Rangers: Mark Messier
There is only one player to appear on this list twice, and his name is Mark Messier, possibly the greatest leader in the NHL ever. He led the 1994 New York Rangers to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 54 years, and he did it with style.
10 Ottawa Senators - Daniel Alfredsson
Again, this one falls into the category of “no-brainer.” Daniel Alfredsson served as Senators captain for 13 seasons, which is just over half of the entire history of the franchise. The Stanley Cup has of course eluded the franchise for all these years, but Alfie led the 2007 version to the Finals.
9 Philadelphia Flyers: Bobby Clarke
The Flyers of the mid-70s were one of the most feared teams in NHL history, and the leader of that squadron was none other than the great Bobby Clarke. During his seven year tenure as captain in Philly, the Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups, becoming the first expansion team to win it.
8 Pittsburgh Penguins - Mario Lemieux
Sidney Crosby is almost at a point where he can challenge Super Mario for this title, but I’d say he needs to win at least one more Stanley to dethrone Mario Lemieux.
7 San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Screw it, I’m doing it. I’m picking Joe Thornton for the Sharks, despite the fact that he was stripped of the “C” two seasons ago for a reason that I’m still not entirely clear on. Joe Pavelski is not a bad choice for a replacement, but the way Thornton dealt with the demotion—with such class and integrity—made me select him for this list.
6 St. Louis Blues - Brian Sutter
The 1980s St. Louis Blues were one of those non-descript teams that weren’t quite good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup, yet they still qualified for the postseason every year. Brian Sutter served as captain for nine seasons from 1979-80 to 1987-88.
5 Tampa Bay Lightning - Dave Andreychuk
This one was pretty much a four-sided coin toss between Dave Andreychuk, Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. We went with Andreychuk because he wore the “C” when the Lightning won the 2004 Stanley Cup.
4 Toronto Maple Leafs - George Armstrong
Oh, those poor Toronto Maple Leafs. I almost had to put George Armstrong on this list. Mats Sundin would have been a fine, more modern choice, but he still never won a thing with the Maple Leafs. In fact, Armstrong was at the helm the last time they won, way back in 1967.
3 Vancouver Canucks - Trevor Linden
For a team that’s never won a thing, the Canucks actually had some attractive options for this list—Henrik Sedin, Markus Naslund, Stan Smyl—but we had to go with Trevor Linden, who not only served as captain of Vancouver from 1992 to 1997, but he still acts as an ambassador of the city to this day.
2 Washington Capitals - Rod Langway
The Capitals were a surprisingly tough team for this list. Should we have gone with Alex Ovechkin, the current captain of the squad who just led the team to the franchise’s second Presidents' Trophy under his leadership?
1 Winnipeg Jets - Andrew Ladd
The Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise is fairly young, and they’ve never won a playoff game (two appearances, swept out both times). So needless to say, they didn’t have a wealth of great captains with deep resumes of success.
Andrew Ladd, however, served as captain from 2011 to the 2016 trade deadline, which is when he was shipped off to Chicago. The city and fans loved him, he's the franchise's longest serving captain, and for those reasons he’s Winnipeg’s representative here.
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