Winning a Stanley Cup takes an army. It’s a long and grueling season, requiring the cumulative efforts of many to ensure success. And when all is said and done, only one team gets to hoist the Stanley Cup, while the remaining teams look for silver linings in an otherwise failure of a season. A harsh reality, but that’s how most hockey players will describe life in the NHL --- If you’re not first, you’re last! – Ricky Bobby, Sporting Icon ---
Much of a team’s success often goes to its best players, the coach, and the goalie. If you’re best players don’t perform, success is often hard to come by. If the coach isn’t respected, players don’t try, and if your goalie can’t stop pucks, do I really need to explain what happens then? Teams that have sustained success can do so in a variety of ways, but one thing most of them have in common is quality leadership on and off the ice. That leadership, some will say, is the collective responsibility of all players and while that may be true, most of the burden falls on the coach and captain of the team. The captain is the coach on the ice. He’s the ombudsperson for the team. Everybody loves chatting when things are going well, but when s*it hits the fan, who has to face the music and explain just WTF is going on?...the guy wearing the ‘C’ (and the coach). A captain must have the respect of all their teammates, and the coach must have the respect of his captain. If any of those links are broken, problems can occur and manifest into larger locker room problems quickly.
On that note, let’s take a look at 8 NHL teams whose captains have essentially lost the locker room and potential same-team replacements for each.
16 MONTREAL CANADIENS - Max Pacioretty
Max Pacioretty was named the 29th captain of the Canadiens following a 2014 team-vote that many felt should’ve (could’ve) went the way of Thomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov (though he openly stated his reluctance to accept), orrrr imagine if PK had become the 29th? (Though, if his contract allowed for it, then Habs coach Michel Therrien would have signed an Executive Order removing Subban from the candidate pool). Relationship drama aside, Pacioretty won the vote, joining a prestigious group of Habs captains including Jean Beliveau, Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard, Bob Gainey, and more recently, Saku Koivu. A proven goal-scorer, Pacioretty has shown little else in his career, never showing a level of leadership that would constitute the appointment of a ‘C’. When he’s not scoring, he’s largely ineffective (Michel Therrien reportedly called him ‘the worst captain ever’). Unable to lead by example with a one-dimensional style of play, Pacioretty should’ve never been named the Canadiens’ captain, and the decision to put that burden on him will eventually be remembered as the beginning of the end for Max Pacioretty in Montreal.
15 Potential Replacement: Shea Weber
If and when Pacioretty is shipped out of town, a logical replacement at captain would be Shea Weber. His experience in Nashville as well as his multiple Olympic appearances make Weber a capable and proven leader, able to handle the pressures of Montreal. Weber is also locked in on a long-term deal and he's not going anywhere. If the Canadiens were to name him captain today, it's very likely he'd be Montreal's torch bearer for at least the next five years.
With that said, I don’t believe the captain of a ‘Cup contending’ Canadiens team to be on the current roster. They need some new blood in that locker room before entertaining the thought of drinking with Lord Stanley.
14 FLORIDA PANTHERS – Derek MacKenzie
If you’re like me, you needed to google “Who is Derek MacKenzie?”
Apologies to Panthers fans, but I had actually never heard of your present captain before today (and I watch A LOT of hockey). Apparently he’s played in over 500 games, notching 117 points over his time in the show. Now, on-ice impact goes beyond points, I get that, and a captain doesn’t necessarily have to be a team’s top scorer, but I have to question MacKenzie’s deservingness of the captaincy when his career high in points is 23, achieved way back in ’10-11. Last season, MacKenzie’s first as captain (replacing Willie Mitchell), the Panthers finished 6th in the Atlantic Division. This season, they are trending in the same direction, currently sitting near the bottom of the Atlantic.
13 Potential Replacement: Aaron Ekblad
It’s evident the Panthers are in need of some changes on the ice; a new captain being one of those prescribed changes. Regarding a replacement, Aaron Ekblad comes to mind. Ekblad has had an impressive beginning to his career, playing in his 4th season in the NHL and he’s still only 21 years old. Signed thru 2024-25, Ekblad figures to be part of the Panthers organization for a long time (Derek MacKenzie is due ~$1.3M this year, and next. He’s 36 years old).
Ekblad plays an average of almost 24 minutes a night. MacKenzie averages just less than 12 minutes. One piece appears much more critical than the other, no? If I’m Florida, I’m not waiting long before announcing a changing of the guard and giving my young defenseman the ‘C’. After all, age is nothing but a number…
12 Vancouver Canucks – Henrik Sedin
Speaking of ‘changing of the guard’, the Vancouver Canucks are approaching the need to do just that, much like the Panthers…problem is, they’ve actually had a respectable amount of success up to this point in 2017-18 under rookie head coach Travis Green. Expected to be season-long cellar dwellers, the Canucks sit one point out of a playoff spot thru 30 games. Despite the surprising success, Vancouver cannot neglect the need for Post-Sedin succession planning. The dazzling Swedes are now 37, and both playing on expiring contracts. Henrik, the captain, has only 2 goals this season. Add in the fact he’s averaging just over 14 minutes a night (his lowest ATOI since 2003-04) and it’s easy to see the writing on the wall.
11 Potential Replacement: Bo Horvat
A change is not going to happen mid-season, but look for the Canucks to move on from the Sedins after this season. The likely recipient of the vacated captaincy will be Bo Horvat; the team’s second leading scorer and figurative drive train. A rugged hard-working center, Horvat possesses impressive skill and has developed into a 200 ft. player (He’s +5 thru 28 games, after ending his previous three seasons a minus player).
Fifteen years younger than Daniel & Henrik Sedin, Horvat is 22 years old and signed through 2022-23, making him a key building block in the Canucks’ ongoing rebuilding efforts. A new era is set to begin in Vancouver and Horvat should be the one spearheading it into the future.
10 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – Claude Giroux
Claude Giroux has captained the Flyers for five seasons, with 2017-18 being his sixth year with the ‘C’. In the five prior to this year, Philly has made the playoffs only twice, losing in the first-round both times. For the current season, the Flyers sit near the bottom of their division and out of a playoff spot. Most will tell you their problems, past and present, are rooted in poor and inconsistent goaltending. I would be inclined to agree with them. That said, whether you deem it fair or not, professional sports is about winning and when a team doesn’t win, blame will ultimately find the GM, the Head Coach, and also the captain long before a goalie is roasted over an open flame.
GM Ron Hextall’s seat is getting warm, HC Dave Hakstol’s seat is turning red, and Giroux’s hold on the captaincy has to be questioned given the lack of success during his tenure.
9 Potential Replacement: Sean Couturier
Sean Couturier would seem a fitting replacement if the Flyers pull the trigger on a leadership change. Signed through 2022-23 (same as Giroux, which poses a minor problem), Couturier plays a much grittier style of hockey than Giroux, and does so with a similar level of production accompanying it. Something is certainly missing in Philadelphia and perhaps Giroux is a worthy trade chip to dangle on the market. Almost assuredly, the Canadiens, in dire need of a center (and many more for that matter) would inquire. Canadiens have a decent goalie, don’t they?
In any event, perhaps another down year in Philly will convince the Flyers to explore a leadership change going into next season.
8 COLORADO AVALANCHE – Gabriel Landeskog
This one is a little trickier when you consider the Avalanche’s situation as a team mid-rebuild. Landeskog has been a quality player and captain for Colorado. His second season taking over from prior captain Milan Hejduk saw the Avalanche surprisingly win their division, only to lose in seven games to the Minnesota Wild. Since that playoff birth in 2013-14, Colorado has yet to return to the post-season and frankly, have been a ‘front office tire fire’, though it’s not fair to blame Landeskog for the administrative issues plaguing the franchise. Still, when a team struggles, changes need to be made (and Landeskog himself has been involved in trade rumors dating back to last season). Coaches have changed, executives have changed and ultimately, the captain needs to change if the Avalanche want to return to playing more than 82 games in a season.
7 Potential Replacement: Erik Johnson
Erik Johnson would appear to be a worthy candidate to take over captain duties should the team opt for a change or in the event of a Landeskog trade. It may not be the most popular choice among Avs fans, as some may want one of the team's blue chip young players to take the reins, but this team seems to be in need of some veteran stability at captain.
Johnson has played in over 600 NHL games, averaging over 20 minutes of ice-time per game in every season apart from his inaugural campaign in 2007-08. For this season, Johnson is averaging a career high 26:12 minutes per game, and is signed thru 2022-23 suggesting he’s part of the solution in Colorado, not the problem.
6 BOSTON BRUINS – Zdeno Chara
The largest person to ever play hockey is really really old; 40 years old to be exact and playing in his 20th NHL season. He’s caused hockey and it’s teams to re-think certain elements of the game with his size and reach, including forcing the league to amend the rule that governs stick length to allow him to play with an appropriate sized stick. Zdeno Chara, at one point, was the most feared player on the ice. Not known as a fighter, yet nobody would dare mess with the 6’9 monster, capable of squashing most players with a single swing. However, father time and the quickening pace of today’s NHL game have mostly robbed Chara of his on-ice impact. Unable to police the ice like he once did, Chara has certainly lost some of his on-ice credibility and clout amongst teammates and opponents, something the Bruins need to address before it’s too late.
5 Potential Replacement: Patrice Bergeron
His teammate, Patrice Bergeron remains one of the most highly effective and respected players on the team, and in the league. Still with 4 years remaining --- after this season (Chara is in the final year of his deal) --- Bergeron, 32, is all but guaranteed to finish his career as a Bruin, his only NHL franchise. Having been a model player and person throughout, it would serve as a nice finishing touch to have Bergeron wrap up his career with the ‘C’ on his jersey. Chara has said that if he returns to play next season, he'd only want to do it as a Bruin, but Boston needs to move on and make Bergeron their next captain, not to mention free up the cap space Chara is taking.
4 SAN JOSE SHARKS – Joe Pavelski
Moving to a team who’s recently shown they aren’t afraid to shake things up in the locker room --- the San Jose Sharks. Having stripped then captain Joe Thornton of the ‘C’ back in 2014, the Sharks have been down this road before. The 2014 decision was aided by a track record of playoff failures, including an epic collapse in the 2013-14 campaign that saw the Sharks lose to the Los Angeles Kings in the first-round after taking a 3-0 best-of-seven series lead. Despite many Sharks players not having their best stuff, Thornton was exceptionally bad, finishing with only 3 points and a minus-6.
A scrutinized decision at the time, the Sharks opted to strip Thornton of the captaincy and played the following season without one (they would go on to miss the playoffs). Joe Pavelski would take over captain duties in 2015-16 and the Sharks would make major strides, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals only to lose to the Penguins in six games. The Sharks would revert back to familiar ways the next season, losing in the first round and once again casting doubt on the team’s leadership.
3 Potential Replacement: Brent Burns
The obvious choice to replace current captain Pavelski is Brent Burns. A perennial Norris Trophy candidate and undisputed best-dressed player in the league, Burns’ style of play and personality make him the ideal choice as team leader. Nobody means more to the Sharks than Brent Burns and that alone makes him the unanimous choice to replace Pavelski and get the Sharks back on track.
Currently sitting in a playoff spot, everybody knows what is bound to happen when the Sharks play post-season hockey? They forget to chew, and CHOKE. Time to change something. Burns always shows up to play and is beloved by just about every hockey fan. He'd be a great ambassador for the Sharks organization. And how intimidating would that bear be with a C?
2 OTTAWA SENATORS – Erik Karlsson
The Senators are in a tail spin, and for as dominant as Erik Karlsson has been to this point in his career, he’s playing some of the worst hockey of it right now --- as of December 12, Karlsson has 1 assist in his last 12 games --- For the season, Karlsson has 1 goal and 16 assists in 23 games, and is -16. Perhaps still recovering from a foot injury that reportedly forced him to change his skating stride to avoid undue stress on his foot, Karlsson has looked more like Mark Streit than he has a two-time Norris Trophy winner. Less than two years away from unrestricted free agency, Karlsson needs to ensure his long-term health in order to maximize his value come 2019-20. With his expected price tag to be north of $9M per season, it’s difficult to imagine the Senators keeping him when you consider their budgetary constraints and penchant for shying away from big deals (having just traded Kyle Turris after reportedly being unwilling to give him a new contract worth ~$6M per season).
1 Potential Replacement: Mike Hoffman
With youngster Thomas Chabot in the system, the Senators do have Karlsson’s bargain replacement (using that term lightly here) pegged should he leave in free agency. Tabbing a captain to take over from Karlsson (whatever the circumstances may be necessitating it) is somewhat problematic given the Sens lack of star power once you get passed the electrifying Swedish rear-guard. Mike Hoffman could be the answer though. Signed thru ’19-20, Hoffman has led the team in goals two of the past three seasons and plays a follow me style of hockey. With Karlsson’s future in Ottawa murky at best, the time is now for the Sens to hitch their wagon to another horse. Depending how the Sens handicap their chances of re-signing Karlsson, trading him would be the smart move to ensure they don’t allow him to leave, and get nothing in return.