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?
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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.
Niedermayer captained the Ducks to the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup championship in 2007, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP along the way. Oh, and he was also captain of the 2010 Canadian Olympic Gold Medal winning team.
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.
Sure, the team hasn’t been a haven of success during Doan’s time with the franchise (he’s only played 55 career playoff games), but that’s not due to his shortcomings. Doan’s amassed 945 points in his impressive career so far, and his 28 goals this season show he still has something left in the tank.
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.
Bourque is the longest-serving captain in Bruins history, having served in the role for 15 seasons. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in points, not to mention the all-time leader in points for defensemen in the NHL. After considering all that, putting Bourque on this list was a no-brainer.
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.
Perreault spent his entire NHL career in Buffalo, skating for the Sabres for 17 seasons and serving as captain for six of those. He also leads the franchise in playoff points with 103—a clean 50 points ahead of second-place Rick Martin.
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.
The Flames never won the Cup with Iggy at the helm, but they came within one game of doing so in 2004, and Iginla was likely going to take the Conn Smythe if they finished the job. He’s currently the franchise leader in games played, goals, and points.
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.
Brind’Amour served as team captain for five seasons, and he sits top 10 in games played, goals, assists, and points for the franchise.
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”.
Toews is not only a solid offensive contributor, but he comes with a package of intangibles and experience that few others have at 27 years old. Toews is arguably the best leader in the NHL today.
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.
Sakic served a staggering 16 seasons as captain, and during that span he led the club to its first two championships— something that former Nordiques legends Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet were unable to deliver.
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.
We couldn’t go with Rick Nash since he basically ditched the team. Nick Foligno has served just one season as captain, and it was a pretty sad season. That left Foote, Luke Richardson, and Lyle Odelein. Foote wins.
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.
Hatcher would truly show his worth come playoff time, when his physical game would reach another level and he would simply wear down his opponents with relentless physicality.
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.
When Yzerman was named captain, the Detroit Red Wings were a pretty sorry team. Yzerman lifted them to relevancy, then to competency, and finally to a borderline-dynasty level. Yzerman won three Stanley Cups as captain of the Wings, and they were annually one of the league’s top teams for the last 10-12 years of Yzerman’s impressive career.
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.
Despite the size of the shoes he was to fill, Messier went on to lead the Oilers to a fifth and final Cup, and their only one without Gretzky. He also won the Hart Trophy in 1989-90, scoring a whopping 129 points in 79 games.
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.
Mellanby served as captain from 1997 to 2001, and the Panthers actually made the playoffs in 2000 under his leadership. That doesn’t sound like a huge accomplishment, but when you consider that they didn’t return to the postseason until 2012, his value becomes a little clearer.
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”.
Brown has certainly lost a step over the past five years or so, but his value to the two Cup winning teams—especially the 2012 version—cannot be understated.
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.
Although Koivu has exactly zero legitimate competition in this regard (we weren’t going to give the distinction to one of the former monthly captains), he still deserves the honor. Koivu just completed his eighth season as captain.
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.
Montreal is such a storied franchise, and Beliveau may be the most respected man to ever don the Habs jersey. He spent all 19 NHL seasons in Montreal, winning 10 Stanley Cups in the process and serving as captain for nine seasons.
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.
Of course the Predators haven’t been a wildly successful team when it comes to the playoffs, but Nashville is a perennial playoff team. When Weber is your captain and playing almost half of every game, it’s no real surprise.
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.
In addition to being one of the most feared open-ice hitters in hockey, Stevens was also known to come through in the clutch, perhaps best exemplified by his Conn Smythe-winning performance in the 2000 playoffs.
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.
Surely John Tavares would like to take a run at Potvin for this title in the future, but he’s still got a whole lot of winning to do in Brooklyn before that’s remotely possible.
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.
Down 3-2 to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Final, Messier publicly guaranteed a Rangers win in Game 6, then proceeded to score a natural hat trick in the third period to clinch the victory. Oh, and he also scored the game winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Canucks. Clutch.
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.
Alfredsson spent almost his entire career in Ottawa, and he retired as the franchise leader in goals, points and assists, and it isn’t even close in any of the categories.
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.
Clarke still holds the franchise lead in points with 1,210, and that’s not about to be challenged, as Claude Giroux is the closest active player with 517 points.
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.
What can be said about Lemieux as a leader? He led by example, often carrying the team on his back to victory. He is the franchise leader in all major statistical categories, and those numbers will likely never be touched—even with talents like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the roster today.
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.
I also considered giving the distinction to Patrick Marleau, who was also stripped of the captaincy before Thornton. What the heck is up with the Sharks and doing that for no good reason, repeatedly?
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.
The longest serving captain in team history, Sutter is third behind Bernie Federko and Brett Hull in pretty much every major statistical category in franchise history.
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.
His role on that team was limited, as he was essentially an old man by 2004. Still though, his veteran presence was key on the championship squad, and no one wanted it more than Andreychuk in ’04, as he was finishing his 22nd season and still had not won a Stanley Cup to that point.
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.
Armstrong served in the role for 12 seasons, which means he’s the longest serving captain in team history. He has played more games for the Leafs than anyone else in history.
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.
Linden’s commitment to the Canucks was second-to-none, as proven by his position with the team today as president of hockey operations. He made Vancouver his home, and the city accepted him with open arms.
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?
In the end, we’re still waiting to see a little more from Ovi before handing him this accolade. Instead we gave the distinction to Rod Langway. The steady defender held the captaincy for a decade, and he’s the Capitals all-time leader in plus/minus.
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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