Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
The captaincy of any NHL franchise is an important distinction to have on your resume. It takes the right blend of leadership, playing ability, and notoriety to make a good captain, and the league is currently stocked with guys who embody those characteristics.
In the case of the Atlanta Thrashers, their recent history with the team’s captaincy has been a painful one to recount. After Bobby Holik left the team, the Thrashers didn’t name a captain immediately, but with his free agency looming the following season, they decided that Ilya Kovalchuk should take the reins in January 2009. The gesture not only gave the honor to the best player on the team, but it also was a way of demonstrating how much he meant to the franchise as they went into a summer of trying to negotiate a contract extension with him.
This tactic, along with the several offers, didn’t persuade Kovalchuk to stay in Atlanta, and the face of the franchise was dealt to the Devils in February 2010. Since then, the captaincy has remained vacant, and with good reason. It didn’t seem right to re-assign the position right away, and the team knew that it had quite a bit of off-season work to do in order to remake the roster.
With all of the moves of the off-season, the team has certainly sported a new look. They have been off to a so-so start, going 7-9-3 and currently sitting at fourth place in their division. They’ve had to deal with the loss of Ondrej Pavelec to a scary collapsing incident, and they have been dealing with several injuries on their blue line as well. With all of the bad news the Thrashers have been dealing with, it was decided that it was time to make a leadership move and announce the new captain while the ship could still be turned around.
Left winger Andrew Ladd, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in the off-season, was named the captain on Thursday afternoon by the team, and fellow ex-Blackhawk Dustin Byfuglien was named an alternate captain. Tobias Enstrom will also wear an “A” on his jersey.
There has been a lot of arguing that someone in the final year of a contract probably shouldn’t be named captain of a team, especially after that team lost their primary star player so short a time ago. After all, what if Ladd leaves the team in the off-season? Then they’ll have to go through this whole ordeal again of naming a captain and trying to build a solid team around someone new.
There is also the issue of Ladd’s productivity. Granted, he’s only 24 years of age, but the 4th overall pick from the 2004 draft hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard in the way a captain in the vein of Crosby or Toews is capable of. His career high of 49 points came two seasons ago with Chicago, and he has mostly been known as a third or fourth line guy during his previous two NHL stops.
Also mentioned is the young core of players that are currently making their way up through the Thrashers’ system and onto the big club. Evander Kane, last year’s 1st round draft pick by the team, has looked decent in the scoring department this season, tied for the team lead in goals with seven, and he has looked more confident on the ice than he did last season. Zach Bogosian hasn’t played much this year, but he is also considered a player that will impact the team far into the future on the blue line.
Even with all of those knocks on him, Ladd is still a good fit as the captain of this team. Yes, he is only 24 years old and isn’t a prolific scorer, but what he does do is just as important as what he doesn’t do.
He can move the puck well enough to warrant being a first or second line player, and his hot start offensively to this season has certainly illustrated that his best days are ahead of him on that side of the puck. He is also a very solid defensive player, nearly always maintaining good positioning and maintaining a physical edge to his game that has to be taken into account when evaluating him. That combination of abilities to score and be able to take the body when necessary is a great asset for a team as young as the Thrashers, and Ladd has certainly done that in his short time in Atlanta.
Having a winning pedigree also gives Ladd an added boost of notoriety in the locker room, and the two Stanley Cup rings that he has certainly point to an ability to produce in big situations. Frequently during the playoffs last year Ladd was called upon for defensive purposes, but he did manage to get six points during the Hawks’ Cup run. He may not be the flashiest player on the ice, but he gets the job done when he needs to.
If the Thrashers are serious about Ladd’s captaincy long-term, they need to do the prudent thing and re-sign him to an extension sooner rather than later. He is currently making $2.3 million per season, and he will be a restricted free agent at season’s end. It would be foolish to throw a huge amount of money at him, but a fair salary increase and a deal with a little length to it should do the trick.
Being as far below the salary cap as the Thrashers are, they can afford to give Ladd a little bit more than his production level dictates. A four or five year deal at a $3.2-3.5 million per year average would certainly do the trick, and it would also allow Ladd to become a free agent at either 29 or 30, which is a prime earning time in a player’s career.
Now, if the team is just looking at Andrew to keep the seat warm for a guy like Kane or Bogosian to take over, then they obviously should refrain from talking contract with Ladd just yet. He may be a solid commodity, but he is no way a “must keep” guy. Their actions over the next few weeks and months will definitively tell fans what direction the team is headed. If they are in active negotiations to re-sign Ladd, then look for the team to be built in his two-way player image. If not, then you may see some more jettisoning of high priced players to make room to make a big splash next year in free agency, or potentially for the younger guys to take more of a leadership role.
Whatever the case may be, Ladd’s selection as captain is the smart one for the team right now, and fans can be confident that the team’s leadership has made the right choice. What remains to be seen is if it will have any impact where it counts: on the ice.