Colorado Avalanche team captain Gabriel Landeskog is tied with Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers as the fourth longest-tenured captain in the NHL, trailing only Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), and Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks). To understand where Landeskog ranks among the all-time great captains, we’ll start with an iconic example of a great performance by a captain.
In the same way that Denver, Colorado, is a football town (the city lives and dies with the Broncos), Metro New York, host to nine professional sports teams, is first and foremost a baseball town. The Yankees and their 27 World Series trophies make it hard to be otherwise. But in the late spring of 1994, everyone in the Big Apple donned their Rangers blue as the New York Rangers made a bid to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. Even the Empire State Building was bathed in red and blue light.
Mark Messier’s Guarantee
Down three games to two in the conference finals against the New Jersey Devils — the Rangers’ rivals across the Hudson — captain Mark Messier guaranteed a victory in Game 6. His guarantee made the cover of the local newspapers, which added to the tension and anxiety of an already hotly-contested series.
“I felt what a great idea for the players to open up the papers and see that I felt confident that we could win the game,” Messier recalled years later. “[I was] not thinking that when the New Jersey Devils opened the paper, they’d be reading the same thing, and ten million other New Yorkers…” he added with a chuckle. “That was a slight oversight on my part.”
After giving up two early goals, the Rangers stormed back to win Game 6, 4-2, living up to Messier’s promise. Best of all, the captain scored a hat trick in that game, and New York went on to win the series and the Stanley Cup. That game is widely considered one of the greatest games in Rangers history and one of the most memorable in NHL history. It also cemented Messier’s place as the all-time greatest NHL captain.
What Makes a Great NHL Captain?
Among the lists of all-time great NHL captains, the same names often come up along with Messier’s: Maurice “Rocket” Richard and John Beliveau (Montreal Canadiens), Scott Stevens (Devils), Denis Potvin (New York Islanders), Wayne Gretzky (Edmonton Oilers), and Joe Sakic (Quebec Nordiques/Avalanche), to name a few.
They all won multiple Stanley Cups. Beliveau leads the list with five championships (as captain), while Gretzky, Potvin, and Richard each won four. But when Beliveau and Richard played, there were only six teams in the league, for Potvin and Gretzky there were 21. With 32 teams, it’s harder today for a team to win multiple Cups than it was in days gone by.
All these former captains also won a Calder, Conn Smythe, Hart, and/or Norris Trophy and all wore the “C” for many years. Perhaps most importantly, they all had great teams around them. No one player, no matter how great, can carry an NHL team to a championship without the right supporting cast. Landeskog won the Calder Trophy in his rookie season.
While a fan favorite, Landeskog is not yet in the conversation for all-time great captains, and the reason is simple: he has yet to lead his team to a championship. That will change if or when he brings the Stanley Cup back to Denver because the rest of his resume is impressive.
Landeskog Is Clutch
The Avalanche finished the 2016-17 campaign with a league-worst 22-56-4 record. They had reached the postseason only once in the previous seven years, but they were young and building. By the end of the 2017-18 season, they were in contention for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
On March 24, the Avalanche hosted the Vegas Golden Knights, who, with a win, would secure their first franchise postseason appearance. Jonathan Marchessault tied the game to force an overtime and then a shootout. With goaltender Semyon Varlamov stopping all three shots from the Golden Knights, Landeskog skated to center ice with a look of determination on his face. He put the puck on his stick and beat Marc-Andre Fleury high on the blocker-side. The game delayed the Golden Knights’ playoff celebration, and helped propel the Avalanche to their first playoff appearance in four years.
That was just one regular-season game, but it’s indicative of how Landeskog leads his team, and how he rises to a challenge. In last year’s COVID-shortened season, he led the Avs with eight game-winning goals, tying him with Leon Draisaitl for third in the NHL (behind Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid). He also led the team with 81 hits last season, was tied for first on the team in power-play goals (9), was second in goals (20), and third in points (52).
The Avalanche have made the playoffs every year since 2017-18, and have improved their record in each season since, culminating in a Presidents’ Trophy last season for the best regular-season record.
Landeskog’s On-Ice Leadership
But a great captain is more than the sum of his stats. Would the Oilers have won five Stanley Cups if Gretzky had never been named captain? Yes. Because they had Gretzky. His leadership was based on his other-worldly play rather than the intangibles that put some other all-time captains on the list. Landeskog, while admittedly a lesser player than Messier, is cut from Messier’s mould as a captain.
Early in Game 1 versus the St. Louis Blues in the 2021 Playoffs, center Brayden Schenn collided with Landeskog’s linemate — and the Avalanche’s leading goal scorer — Mikko Rantanen in the neutral zone. Wanting to send a message and defend his teammate, Landeskog dropped the gloves and dropped Schenn to the ice. (Listen to Connor McGahey’s iconic call of the fight for Altitude Radio.)
Landeskog finished the game with a Gordie Howe hat trick — a fight, a goal (a beautiful deflection from a Nathan MacKinnon blue-line blast), and an assist. His performance set the tone for the series, which the Avalanche won in four straight.
“Obviously I’m going to stand up for my teammates,” Landeskog said of the fight in a postgame press conference. “I thought our first ten minutes of that period was a little bit… we were tiptoeing our way into it. Some nerves and adrenaline… so I thought I was going to calm it down a little bit, and get the crowd into it.”
Landeskog is loaded with the intangibles that make a great captain.
Landeskog Needs a Stanley Cup to Secure His Legacy
With a newly inked eight-year contract extension — if the 28-year-old Landeskog can stay healthy — he will finish his career as the longest-tenured captain in Nordiques/Avalanche history, passing Sakic. But Sakic, a wildly popular player, renowned leader, and now the team’s general manager, has something Landeskog does not: two Stanley Cup victories.
If Landeskog can lead his team to a Stanley Cup, then his leadership, his clutch play, and his complete game will secure his spot alongside Sakic on the list of greatest franchise captains and will put him in the conversation among the all-time great NHL captains. With a supporting cast that includes Rantanen, MacKinnon, Cale Makar, he is well-positioned to make that leap.
Hockey dad, beer league hockey captain, rabid Avalanche fan. Author of five novels for young adults, including The Scar Boys, Life in a Fishbowl, and Hard Wired. Lives in Littleton, Colorado with two middle school-age kids, one awesome wife, and three pets. Voted least likely to break 100 on a golf course.