The National Hockey League has undergone a face lift in recent years. Revenue sharing and salary cap adjustments allow every team to fight for contention, and so the days of dynasties are fading away. This potentially means increased player movement, even of the hardened leaders around the league. Captain trades, in recent years alone, include the Stars’ Brenden Morrow, Calgary’s Jarome Iginla, Buffalo’s Jason Pominville, and most notably, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan for Lightning captain Martin St. Louis.
Gone, it seems, are the days when guys like Yzerman, Sakic, and Lemieux would spend a career with one club, enjoying the spoils of success. Even more admirable are captains like Ray Bourque and Daniel Alfredsson, who stuck with a franchise through more good than bad. NHL captains are also younger nowadays. Three of the five youngest-ever captains were selected in the past decade (Landeskog, Crosby, Toews, all teenagers at the time), and now over half of NHL captains are 30 or younger. The Edmonton Oilers’ captain position is vacant so far this season, but there’s a good chance it will be filled by a young gun given all the fresh faces.
The parameters of what “makes” an NHL captain are also shifting. Not long ago, most captains were North American-born, and it wasn’t until 2008 that a European captain won the Stanley Cup (Nicklas Lidstrom with Detroit). Now seven teams are captained by non-North Americans. The changing landscape is leading to experimentation with captains, like the Kings choosing Dustin Brown, an agitator at heart, to lead the team (that one worked out); the Canucks, meanwhile, tried goaltender Roberto Luongo as captain for one season (didn’t pan out quite as well). But the 10 actively serving captains in this list, however, have earned the “C” on their chest.
10. Joe Pavelski
Being a captain on any professional sports team is no easy task, but there is all the more pressure when two of the previous three captains were stripped of the “C”—Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau—and are still on your team, sitting on the same bench and hanging out in the same locker room. It’s almost like you have to go out of your way to develop a fresh leadership style.
While he’s no Bob Errey or Mike Ricci of captain material just yet, Pavs is doing okay with the job so far. He’s leading the team in goals and points, and helping the Sharks stay relevant in the tough Pacific division. But the real test for this team is playoff time. Another disappointing season could lead to a full-fledged dismantle; not the best bullet point under “Captain” on the resume.
9. Andrew Ladd
After fighting for a decade and a half to restore their beloved Jets, Winnipeg hockey fans finally got their wish. And who better than two-time Stanley Cup champion, Andrew Ladd, to captain the resurgence? The Maple Ridge, BC native is the epitome of Jets hockey—not the flashiest guy in the league, but he leads by example and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves or muck it up in the corners.
Even at 29, Ladd is seen as a calm veteran presence in the locker room, looking in the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers, Nic Petan, and Jacob Trouba. But with contract negotiations looming, it will be interesting to see if Ladd is loyal to the Jets cause, or whether he will jump ship for greener (and warmer) pastures.
8. Dustin Brown
Unless you’re an L.A. Kings fan or you’re an American in an Olympic year, chances are you hate Dustin Brown’s face. That’s not a typical quality for a team captain, even for a rival enemy. Brown has that agitator-style and weasel-like demeanour that gets under people’s skin (even if you’re just watching on TV).
All that aside, Brown possesses the leadership qualities of all the other captains included in this list. Loyalty? Check—all 12 seasons spent in a Kings uniform. Results? Check—two Stanley Cups under his belt. Respect? Check—awarded the 2014 Mark Messier Leadership Award. He has even been recognized for all the work he does in the community (and not for a sentence of community service like some of his former teammates). Who knew?
7. John Tavares
Growing up, John Tavares was always the young’un in the locker room, whether it was playing junior hockey a year before his peers or landing a roster spot on the Islanders right out of the draft. But now in his seventh NHL season, Tavares is assuming a role he’s never before filled: the old guy.
Bringing the New York Islanders back into contention is no small feat, and Tavares is certainly doing his part. Not only is he leading the way on the ice (he’s on pace to run for a fifty-goal season), he brings out the best in those around him as a number of teammates are also in line for their best seasons yet. Since he’s proven to find the back of the net come playoff time, this could be the year they make a splash.
6. Dion Phaneuf
I know what you’re thinking: Dion Phaneuf? That Dion Phaneuf? The overrated one with the giant forehead? Yes, that one. But through all the hirings and firings, signings and releases, from the debacles of Brian Burke and Randy Carlyle to Phil Kessel and David Clarkson, fans and media alike have consistently been able to use Dion Phaneuf as their verbal and emotional punching bag. And he still re-signed for seven more seasons? Talk about commitment.
Phaneuf’s proven dedication (for whatever reason) to the Leafs should be acknowledged. If he stays on as captain for even one more year, he will be one of the longest-serving captains in Leafs history, surpassing the likes of Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, and Rick Vaive.
5. Brian Gionta
What Brian Gionta lacks in size, he makes up in character. A born leader, the five-foot-seven winger captained Boston College to a national championship before being drafted by New Jersey. After a change of scenery to Montreal, Gionta played just one season before being named the 28th captain in Habs history. He now serves as captain on a struggling but youthful Buffalo Sabres team. While he may not see his efforts come to fruition during his time, Gionta is no doubt grooming Zack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, and Sam Reinhart to be future leaders.
4. Max Pacioretty
Selecting a new Montreal Canadiens captain is no task to rush into. With such a storied franchise history, the new captain will not only lead the current squad but must also honour those before him. Could, say, Dale Weise, where the same “C” over his heart that was once worn by Henri and Maurice Richard…by Jean Beliveau? Obviously not. And so the Habs remained captainless after Brian Gionta’s departure until a proper decision could be made.
Max Pacioretty has been trusted with the job, and he seems not only to be grasping the enormity of his situation but running with it. He’s once again leading the team in goals this season, as the Habs battle for top spot in the league. He’s working on learning French so he can converse with Quebec media, and we already know he hates the Bruins. He almost sounds overqualified for the job.
3. Henrik Zetterberg
There must be something in the Hockeytown water that keeps their stars from drifting away. There was presumably minimal arm-twisting for Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom, who enjoyed Stanley Cup runs on constantly stacked teams. But for current captain Henrik Zetterberg (and assistant captain, Pavel Datsyuk, for the matter), carrying the torch on a much less prolific roster—while living in the economically depressed Motor City—requires a bit more commitment.
Zetterberg is now trying to lead the Wings to their 25th consecutive playoff appearance. Not only does he consistently produce points, he is also paving the way for the next generation—Abdelkader, Tartar, Larkin, Nyquist—to carry on the legacy.
2. Shane Doan
In a generation of NHL hockey when captains are younger and serving shorter stints, Shane Doan remains as a one of the few truly loyal veteran leaders in the game. It’s one thing for the Joe Sakics of the league to stick around when Stanley Cups are aplenty, but Doan has spent his entire career with the Coyotes franchise. That’s almost two decades spent in one of the most nontraditional, unappreciated hockey markets in North America.
While never a flashy superstar, Doan is one of the most consistent players in the league and has subtly amassed nearly 900 points. He’s not afraid to drop the gloves, either, like last season when he duked it out with Ryan Getzlaf.
1. Jonathan Toews
They don’t call him”Captain Serious” for nothing. Serious about scoring clutch goals. Serious about Stanley Cup rings. Serious about doing whatever it takes, which apparently leaves little time for smiles (according to teammate Brent Seabrook, who allegedly gave him the nickname). The “Captain Serious” moniker has even inspired a Windy City craft beer of the same name.
Toews has always possessed that “next level” that true leaders have, stepping up in the big moments dating back to his junior days (remember those three shoot-out goals in the 2007 World Juniors?). Now with three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, and one honorary Manitoba lake in his name, Toews has etched himself as one of the greatest leaders in NHL history—all before his 30th birthday.
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