As in any sport, leadership is a difficult quality to quantify in hockey. What makes a good leader? Does he have to put up points to be considered the full package? Does he have to be vocal in the dressing room, or can he simply lead by example?
Throughout the history of the NHL, there have been leaders who have indeed led primarily by example, and others who have led by firing up their teammates. Both types of leader have proven to work out in the past, and it’s tough to say which one is more effective.
Naming a team captain is a big deal for franchises, and it’s important that you make the right decision. That’s why oftentimes these days teams will go a season or two with a vacancy in the spot; it’s better to sit back a year and wait for players to mature than it is to saddle them with extra responsibility before they’re ready.
Today’s list will look at the 10 best and—since we’re all about equal opportunity here at The Sportster—the 10 worst captains in NHL history. Most (9/10) of the captains listed as the best of all time have led their team to at least one Stanley Cup, and none of the worst have, so perhaps winning is the best way to prove yourself as a leader. Enjoy:
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20 Best – Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers
We obviously had to include Wayne Gretzky somewhere on our list, and he squeaks in here at no. 10. The Great One is here primarily for his time at the helm in Edmonton, where he led the club to its first four Stanley Cup victories (’84, ’85, ’87, ’88).
Gretzky wasn’t the most vocal of leaders by many accounts, but there’s nobody out there who led by example better than Gretz. He was the best player in the world (by far) during his time as captain in Edmonton, and he earned two Conn Smythe Trophies during the decade (in addition to the eight consecutive Hart Trophies the guy took home in the 1980s. Crazy). While he was a captain in his other stops, there is no doubt that he was best when he was leading the Oilers to glory.
19 Worst - Kenny Jonsson, New York Islanders
Defenseman Kenny Jonsson served as captain of the Islanders for two seasons from 1999 to 2001. This was a wrong place, wrong time situation for Jonsson, who just so happened to be at the peak of his career at a time when the Islanders were void of any true star power or bona fide leader. Hence, the quiet Jonsson was named captain.
Not everyone was born to lead, and Jonsson simply wasn’t meant to helm the ship. While he was certainly a serviceable complementary player in his time, and even a borderline all-star at his peak, he was never equipped to lead an NHL team to the promised land. Jonsson relinquished the captaincy to Michael Peca after 2000-01, and the Isles immediately became a playoff team.
18 Best – Daniel Alfredsson, Ottowa Senators
Daniel Alfredsson is the only captain to appear on our “best” list that never won a Stanley Cup. You can’t argue the fact that Alfie belongs on this list though, as he served as the Sens captain for 13 seasons, at the helm for the franchise’s best teams in history, highlighted by a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007.
Alfredsson, of course, played his final season in Detroit after a contract dispute in Ottawa, but there are no hard feelings on either side in Canada’s capital these days. Sens fans still love Alfredsson, and the feeling is mutual. He even signed a one-day contract with Ottawa in 2014 so that he could end his career the way it started and the way he’ll forever be remembered: as an Ottawa Senator.
17 Worst – Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres named Thomas Vanek captain at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, and that proved to be a poor choice. The only reason Vanek was given the distinction was seniority, but the fact that he was dealt to the New York Islanders after just 13 games as captain maybe tells you all you need to know.
This was a trade made with the future in mind (from the Sabres point of view, anyway), so it might not be a huge indictment of Vanek’s leadership abilities. However, does anyone actually look at Vanek and see a true, great leader? I know I don’t. He’s made his way through three teams since departing the Sabres, so it’s not like he’s irreplaceable at this stage, either.
16 Best – Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Some people still have a hate on for Sidney Crosby, but that will eventually dissipate into nothing and Crosby will go down as one of the best captains in the history of the game. He’s won two Stanley Cups as leader of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he’s led his country to two Olympic Gold Medals in two tries.
That’s a resume that’s pretty tough to deny. Despite what Connor McDavid is trying to say about it these days, Crosby is still the greatest player on the planet. He not only makes every player around him better, but he demands more from his linemates. Crosby is at a point in his career in which he basically leads both by example and vocally, and that something that will continue to help the Penguins organization.
15 Worst – Jason Allison, Boston Bruins
Sometimes, teams just simply make bad choices when it comes time to name a captain, and that’s what happened when the Bruins gave the distinction to Jason Allison for the 2000-01 season. Allison was a fine hockey player at this point of his career, and he even managed 95 points as the leader that season. The problem with Allison is that he relied solely on talent and not on commitment and determination.
In order to be a great leader in a pro sports league, you need to possess those latter two qualities. Teammates need to be able to look at you and see that you’re pouring your heart and soul into the team, and that was never the case with Allison, regardless of where he played. The B’s missed the playoffs with Allison as captain but won their division the very next season while captain-less.
14 Best – Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Crosby could easily be here on this list, with Jonathan Toews dropping to Crosby’s eighth spot, but Toews edges out Crosby on the strength of his three Stanley Cups. He managed that number of Cups by the age of 27, which is an incredibly remarkable feat that can’t be overlooked.
Captain Serious just seems to win wherever he goes, and he’s often the captain of those winning teams. The only time Toews seems to not be the captain of his team is if Crosby is on the same one. With the Blackhawks off to a hot start, Toews wants the hockey world to know that he’s not done and perhaps he has a few more left in him in the Windy City. Many think Patrick Kane is the star; and while he's more polarizing, the 'Hawks go as far as Toews takes them.
13 Worst – Andrew Ference, Edmonton Oilers
Andrew Ference was a great ambassador for the city of Edmonton during his time as captain of the Edmonton Oilers, but unfortunately for the veteran defenseman that is only part of the job of captain. The other part—the part that takes place on the ice, one might argue the important part—was where Ference fell well short of the mark.
Nobody is saying that the captain has to be one of the best players on the team, but I am saying that he has to be an NHL-quality player. Ference was barely that during his two seasons at the helm in Edmonton, and he struggled to hold a spot in the lineup during his second year. You can’t have your captain in the press box with a clean bill of health, and that’s why Ference is on this list.
12 Best – Scott Stevens, New Jersey Devils
Scott Stevens was never the best player on any of the teams he played on, but he was probably one of the more feared defenders of his generation. When Stevens was on the ice, you better be skating with your head up because he was liable to make you pay the price if not.
Stevens won three Stanley Cups with the Devils, taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2000 as the MVP of the playoffs. With the new headshot rules in place in today’s NHL, it’s tough to say if Stevens would be as effective as he was back in the good old days, but you have to judge a player based on the era he played in, and Stevens was an elite defenseman throughout the ‘90s and into the 2000s.
11 Worst – Mark Messier, Vancouver Canucks
Before you freak out at Messier's inclusion on the worst captains list, finish reading the list. Moving on, Mark Messier became captain of the Vancouver Canucks upon his arrival in 1997, usurping the title from fan favorite Trevor Linden. This peeved some fans, and it set the tone for the relationship between Mess and the city of Vancouver.
Messier did a few other things to anger fans beyond stealing Linden's captaincy. Of note, he wore his usual number 11, which had been unofficially retired in Vancouver in honor of Wayne Maki, a former Canuck who died suddenly in 1974. Add it all up and you can make a case that Messier was a terrible leader during his time in Vancouver.
10 Best – Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers were the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup, accomplishing the feat in 1974 and then again in 1975. Clarke was captain of both those teams, and he was a leader in every sense of the word. The Flyers were known as the Broad Street Bullies back in those days, and they were as feared of an opponent as ever.
Clarke won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player three times, in 1973, 1975, and 1976. Only three other players in history have won it more than him, so that should give you an idea of just what a great accomplishment that is. When Clarke was commanding the ship, the crew followed suit and the result was almost always positive.
9 Worst – Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers
Whenever a player ditches out on his team while he’s captain, regardless of the reason, it indicates that perhaps maybe their heart wasn’t in it. That was the case with Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta, as he basically forced GM Don Waddell to trade him after rejecting a 12-year contract offer that would have paid the Russian over $100 million.
When you’re rejecting deals like that, I think it’s safe to say that you’re no longer interested in the team you’re on. Kovalchuk’s integrity was later revealed in even greater detail when he was in New Jersey, as he defaulted on his contract there in order to go home to play in Russia. A guy who ditches out on a contract like that is not a good leader, end of story.
8 Best – Joe Sakic, Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche
When I talk about players who led by example, Joe Sakic is the brightest example of such a leader. The pride of Burnaby was drafted in the first round in 1987 by the Quebec Nordiques, and he spent his entire career with that organization, making the move with the franchise to Colorado in 1995.
Sakic was captain of the Nordiques/Avalanche for an incredible 16 seasons, and they were the most successful seasons in the history of the franchise. As leader of the Avs, Sakic took home two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy, in addition to a plethora of other pieces of hardware, including the Hart Trophy as the league MVP in 2001. While he will go down as arguably the greatest player to wear the organization's jersey, he is, by far, their greatest leader as well.
7 Worst – Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs
In 2010, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in desperate need of a leader. They’d just played two seasons without a captain, as they hadn’t yet replaced Mats Sundin after his departure upon the completion of the 2007-08 season. The Leafs decided to give the distinction to defenseman Dion Phaneuf, a decision they would later regret.
Phaneuf wasn’t a vocal leader during his time in Toronto, and he wasn’t much of a leader by example, either. The Maple Leafs were a pretty terrible team throughout Phaneuf’s duration as captain. They did manage to make the playoffs once, but that was in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and was, of course, the scene of perhaps the biggest Game 7 collapse in league history, so take that for what it is...
6 Best – Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings
Cracking the top three of the best captains in league history is Steve Yzerman. Yzerman is the longest serving captain in NHL history, having served as leader of the Red Wings for a staggering 19 seasons (1986 through 2006). During his time at the helm, Yzerman led the club to three Stanley Cup championships, including the franchise’s first Cup in 42 years in 1997.
Yzerman’s mantle is full of hardware from his long illustrious career, and he’s currently adding to his legacy as an executive. He won an additional Cup with the Red Wings as an executive in 2008, and today he is GM of one of the best teams in the league, the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was awarded the 2015 NHL General Manager of the League award for his efforts.
5 Worst – Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks
Before we get into it, let’s make it clear that Roberto Luongo isn’t on this list because he’s a bad leader. He’s on this list because the Canucks thought it was a good idea to name a goaltender team captain in 2008, and that was very obviously a bad idea. The ‘Nucks replaced Luongo with Henrik Sedin in 2010, which was a wise decision.
Having a goalie as captain makes little sense from many viewpoints. First off, he can’t leave his crease to discuss a play with the referees at the time box, and nor would you want your goalie concerning himself with such matters in the middle of a game. Furthermore, even a bona fide starter plays 65-70 games a season, so you’re voluntarily scratching your captain for 10-15 games a season. It’s all dumb, really.
4 Best – Jean Beliveau, Montreal Canadians
The Montreal Canadiens have won many more Stanley Cups than, well, every other team, and, as a result, they have had a lot of candidates for this list. After weighing the pros and cons of them all, it’s Jean Beliveau who stands out as the most exceptional. Beliveau is the longest-serving captain in Canadiens history, having held the title for 10 seasons from 1961 to 1971.
Beliveau led the Habs to five championships during his reign as captain, and he took home a Conn Smythe Trophy and two Hart Trophies as the league MVP along the way. The late Beliveau was the epitome of class throughout his career, and he’ll always be remembered as one of the strongest ambassadors for the game of hockey.
3 Worst – Alexei Yashin, New York Islanders
Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the New York Islanders named Alexei Yashin as team captain. He was under contract for another six seasons at big dollars, so it made sense from that standpoint. From another more accurate standpoint, it was a poor decision on the Islanders part, as Yashin decided to leave the NHL after just two seasons at the helm on the Island.
Garth Snow and the Islanders bought out the remainder of Yashin’s deal following the completion of the 2007-08 season, and they only recently stopped paying Yashin (he collected buyout money through 2014-15). Needless to say, defection to Russia isn’t a quality you look for in your team’s leader, especially when you just gave him the "C" patch on his jersey.
2 Best – Mark Messier, Edmonton Oilers/New York Rangers
The good Messier did in Edmonton and New York far outweighs the bad he did in Vancouver. Mark Messier won the Stanley Cup once as captain of the Edmonton Oilers, and once as captain of the New York Rangers. Both of those championships were hugely important in their own way; in Edmonton, Messier proved that the Oilers could still win it all without Wayne Gretzky. In New York, Messier was the epitome of a leader, practically guaranteeing a win for his team before carrying them on his back.
Specifically, the Rangers were facing elimination in the 1994 Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils. Heading into Game 6, Messier publicly guaranteed a Rangers win. Messier proceeded to score a natural hat trick in the third period of that game, and the Rangers went on to win the series and then, of course, the Stanley Cup.
1 Worst – Shayne Corson, Edmonton Oilers
Shayne Corson barely held the captaincy for the Edmonton Oilers, as he started the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign with the distinction but was stripped of his letter later that very season, lasting less than three months in the role. While it's rare enough for a captain to get stripped, it's even more of a rarity to happen in-season.
Reportedly, Corson was stripped of the captaincy after getting into an argument with youngster Jason Arnott over who should have been awarded the second assist on a goal. This may have been an extreme overreaction on head coach George Burnett’s part, but nonetheless arguing over who gets awarded points on goals isn’t the behavior you want to see from a captain. Corson was dealt out of Edmonton after just one season.
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