Being an NHL captain used to be a pretty stable job. Once you were handed a “C,” you could expect to hold on to it for a while, maybe even a couple of decades if you were lucky and/or Steve Yzerman. Even the league’s most dysfunctional teams made a change only every few years, so when the time came to pass the torch, it was a big deal.1
As well it should be. NHL captains have certain on-ice responsibilities, but not critical ones. More important, a captain is usually considered the face of the franchise. He may or may not be the team’s best player, but when he’s wearing the “C,” it’s considered his team.
These days, some teams change captains roughly as often as Apple updates iTunes. At this time last year, there were an unprecedented eight teams without a captain. Heading into this season, we’re looking at seven openings, including three repeat appearances from last year’s list.
Here’s a look at those seven openings, and our best guesses as to who’ll end up filling them.
The Sabres went into last season without a captain after trading Jason Pominville. They decided to split the honor between Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott, and then ended up trading both of those guys, too.
Those deals came as part of a full-scale rebuild that’s left the team without any longtime Sabres who’d make for an obvious choice. Tyler Myers had a rebound season and could be a possibility. Cody Hodgson might work, too. I suggested Drew Stafford for the job last year, and Sabres fans nearly burned my house down. So let’s stay away from him.
The other option would be a recent acquisition like Matt Moulson or former Habs Josh Gorges or Brian Gionta, the last of whom was captain in Montreal before signing in Buffalo. It’s relatively rare to hand the “C” to a player who just arrived, but it’s not unprecedented. And there might be some appeal in having a division rival’s former captain slide in and take over.
Best bet: It wouldn’t be a shock to see them go without a full-time captain until the rebuilding process stabilizes a bit. But that’s a boring prediction, so let’s go with Gionta, who gets to handle the job for a few years until they’re ready to give it to Connor McDavid.
With Gionta gone, the Habs are looking for someone to take over one of the tougher captaincy jobs in hockey. This sort of thing is a big deal in Montreal, where the list of former captains includes legends like Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, and Maurice Richard.
While you could make a case for Brandon Prust and Tomas Plekanec, this one seems like it’s going to end up being a two-man race between defensemen Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban. Markov is the veteran option, having played his entire 13-year career in Montreal, and would make plenty of sense. Subban represents the future, having just signed the biggest contract in franchise history, and would also make plenty of sense.
Best bet: It seems like a sure thing that Subban will be the Habs’ captain soon; the only question is whether they just go ahead and do it now, or give the veteran Markov a short transition run first. Either scenario would work, but let’s go ahead and make Markov the pick.
Subtract the storied history and the Senators find themselves in essentially the same situation as Montreal: a choice between a veteran defenseman who’s been with the team forever, and a younger, better one who may not be ready to lead yet. In this case, those roles would be filled by Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, respectively. Chris Neil and Marc Methot may also get some consideration, but the odds are it comes down to a choice between the two blueliners.
Phillips deserves the honor, having spent his entire 16-year career in Ottawa, and he wanted the job a year ago. But his play has dropped off noticeably in recent years, and he was rumored to be a trade target at last season’s deadline. After following up the shocking end of Daniel Alfredsson’s captaincy with Jason Spezza’s one-and-done reign, the team might not want to hand the “C” to another player who’s unlikely to be around much longer.
Best bet: There’s a chance the team might choose to go without a captain altogether (an option their fans seem to support), but my guess is that they just take the plunge with Karlsson now.
The Panthers’ roster features a mix of good young players and veterans. Nobody jumps out as an obvious candidate. Despite a rough second season, Jonathan Huberdeau represents the team’s future. He’s just 21 years old, so he’d be a long shot for a role that historically requires at least a few years of experience. But we’ve seen guys like Jonathan Toews and Gabriel Landeskog get the job recently, so it’s not unheard of. Erik Gudbranson would be another young candidate, and first overall pick Aaron Ekblad could be in line for the job someday.
As far as the veterans go, the two most likely options would be Scottie Upshall or Brian Campbell. Shawn Thornton is new to the roster, but he would represent a classic, old-school pick. And hey, has anyone ever thought of making Roberto Luongo captain? Oh, right.
Best bet: It feels like it’s too early for the kids to take over in Florida, so let’s go with Campbell.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets remain on the list after choosing to once again go without a captain last year. They haven’t had one since they traded Rick Nash to New York, back in 2012.
There are a handful of solid candidates, including defenseman Jack Johnson and forward Brandon Dubinsky, and maybe even newcomer Scott Hartnell. Ryan Johansen should also be in the mix, although you wonder whether his contentious contract battle has done enough damage to nix that idea.
Best bet: Let’s go with Dubinsky, if only for the symmetry of finally replacing Nash with one of the players he was traded for.
New York Rangers
Speaking of Nash, he could be in the running for the captaincy in New York. So could Marc Staal or Martin St. Louis, or even the much-maligned Dan Girardi.
But all those guys are long shots, because all indications are that Ryan McDonagh will get the job. Even Nash himself thinks McDonagh will get the honor. Unless something unexpected happens between now and camp, this one seems like a slam dunk.
Best bet: I’m going with the obvious choice in McDonagh, just to make sure I don’t go oh-fer on these picks.
San Jose Sharks
We saved the best for last. Well, the term “best” is relative. Put it this way: Do you like train wrecks? Because if so, the Sharks are the best.
Joe Thornton had been the captain since 2010. He’s still on the team, mind you; he just isn’t the captain anymore. Before Thornton, there was one year of Rob Blake, and five of Patrick Marleau. The latter is also still on the team, but isn’t the captain anymore. If all this sounds strange to you, don’t worry. It is strange.
The Sharks now have two star players who have been stripped of the captaincy, even though they’re insisting that Thornton wasn’t stripped at all (he was). Coach Todd McLellan assured everyone he gave Thornton a heads-up (he didn’t), and that the ex-captain was OK with the move (he wasn’t).
Remember, the Sharks spent much of their confusing offseason acting like they wanted to trade Marleau or Thornton or both, but ultimately couldn’t, because both players have no-trade clauses. The cynical view was that this was an attempt to embarrass Thornton into accepting a move. Or maybe this is just the Sharks’ way of shaking up the mix without actually upending the roster any more than they need to.
But perhaps the most bizarre twist in the story is that McLellan and the Sharks insist that there will be an open competition for the captaincy. Theoretically, this means Thornton could wind up getting it back again. Nobody thinks that will actually happen, since the Sharks have apparently convinced themselves that he’s not a winner, so it would make far more sense for the team to go with Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, or Joe Pavelski.
Then again, making sense hasn’t exactly been a strong suit for the Sharks lately, so who knows.
Best bet: The Sharks name Thornton captain during training camp, just so they can dramatically strip the “C” off his jersey in a lengthy ceremony before each and every home game until he’s so embarrassed that he agrees to let them trade him to the Islanders. Or they just give it to Couture. One of those two options.