A very knowledgeable Calgary Flames fan suggested to me that Blake Coleman deserves consideration as the team’s new captain. As I thought about it, his idea grew on me. And yes, I can already hear the howls of outrage at this heresy, with many fans pointing to Matthew Tkachuk as the team’s messiah apparent. Still, hear me out.
I am not suggesting that Tkachuk won’t, or couldn’t, be captain. His time may come, but it’s not now, and the Flames need a captain sooner rather than later. Here’s why I think my friend was right in suggesting Coleman could be an intriguing choice to wear the C in Cowtown.
The Case for Blake Coleman as Flames Captain
Coleman knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. He skated with the Tampa Bay Lightning – the reigning NHL champions on back to back Cup victories. He along with Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow combined to form a powerful line that was arguably key to the Lightning’s success.
If playing on a Stanley Cup winner were the only measuring stick for choosing a captain, then Erik Gudbranson and Trevor Lewis would be candidates. While they certainly know what it takes to win a Cup, they are journeymen, and unlikely to be with the Flames past this year. It’s also true that Milan Lucic wears a Stanley Cup ring having drank from hockey’s Holy Grail as a Boston Bruin in the 2010-11 season. Yet that happened just once, over a decade ago.
The point of all of this is that Coleman knows what it takes to win in today’s NHL and was a big part of a team that did it twice. What’s more, he’s now a key ingredient in the team’s recipe for future success.
Coleman studied for the captain’s role under Steven Stamkos, skipper of the Lightning for the last nine seasons and arguably one of the NHL’s finest leaders. While he is not the equal of Stamkos on the ice and certainly not the best player the Flames have on their roster, being the best was never the only qualification possessed by NHL captains.
John Tavares is neither the best player with the Toronto Maple Leafs (check his points production!) nor the highest paid, (Auston Matthews makes more) but he is their captain. While the unquestioned leader of the Boston Bruins, Bobby Orr never wore the C on his sweater.
What About Matthew Tkachuk for Flames Captain?
Among other things, an NHL captain is the face of a franchise. To be that, he must be committed to his team for the long-term, and there lies the rub with Tkachuk. He becomes a restricted free agent (RFA) in July.
Will the 24-year-old hellion re-sign with Calgary? I’ll go out on a limb and predict he will, but it may not be for the long-term. Tkachuks are notoriously hard-nosed at the negotiating table, and I predict he will push for a shorter-term contract in the belief that the NHL’s salary cap will increase in the years to come.
The 30-year-old Coleman, on the other hand, is in the prime of his career and under contract in Cowtown until the end of the 2026-27 season. That is the longest contract the team has on its books.
Captains are leaders both on the ice and off. While he can be a spark plug on the ice, I have no way of knowing whether Tkachuk is a leader in the dressing room. Nor for that matter, do I have any knowledge of Coleman’s status on the team as a leader.
Even so, Tkachuk doesn’t seem to have the standing of Lucic, or his fellow alternate captains Mikael Backlund and Chris Tanev in the eyes of his teammates and many fans. The tone his teammates adopt when speaking of him seems to lack the reverence held for former captain Mark Giordano.
Tkachuk took a step back last year. While he remained among the team’s top points-getters, he seemed to disappear for long stretches. He wasn’t the only player that struggled last year, and some speculate he was badly affected by the concussion he suffered in the 2019-20 playoffs. What’s more, the Flames uninspired performance last year made it hard on the team’s leading scorers to shine. Still, it is in times of adversity that players with the stuff of captain emerge, and Tkachuk simply didn’t.
There was a noticeable change in Tkachuk’s demeanour last season that many trace back to the now-infamous “Jake Muzzin puck flipping incident,” when his teammates didn’t back him up in the ensuing post-game scrum with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many believe it caused tension in the locker room.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, it was a turning point in the team’s relationship with Tkachuk. His teammates told him they didn’t like what he was doing every night. They were turned off by his antics and let him know about it. He went on to say, “I think Tkachuk was really frustrated by what happened. That whole puck flipping thing led to a meeting that I think just sent them sideways. I think Tkachuk feels that some of the players didn’t want him to create something every game and I think he’s confused by that. I think he understands only how to play the game a certain way and I think he’s questioning it now. “
Perhaps Tkachuk’s behaviour last year can be chalked up to his age. At 24-years old, he needs more seasoning and time to round out his leadership skills. After all, the average age of an NHL captain this season is 32. If Coleman were appointed and remained captain until the end of his contract, Tkachuck would still be only 29-years old and have had the time to grow into the role.
It’s not that young players can’t take up the reigns of leadership. Two cases in point are Sidney Crosby (named captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins at 19-years old) and Johnathan Toews (named captain of the Chicago Blackhawks at 20 years old). Still, Tkachuk is no Crosby or Toews.
Perhaps one of the strongest endorsements for Coleman as captain came from Tkachuk himself last summer when he said that, “to have a guy (like Coleman) who’s won in the last recent year, knows what it takes, has played in those big games, scored big goals, played on a great team, knows how a great team should be – a perfect guy to add to our locker room I think right now.”
The Next Captain of the Calgary Flames
Captains are the conscience of their team. They are role models. While some project calm, quiet confidence and others are fiery and vocal, all captains do most of their talking on the ice. There was a time when Johnny Gaudreau or Monahan may have been the choice for the captaincy, but their time has passed. Monahan is fading and likely headed out of town in a trade, and Gaudreau’s future remains uncertain as he enters free agency next summer.
Lucic is the heart and soul of the Flames, and the acknowledged leader of the team. After this season, though, he has only one year left on his contract, and will be 35 years old when it comes to an end. His time too, has passed.
There are few pressures in professional sport like that of being a captain in a Canadian city. The scrutiny and pressure is unequalled, and the captain of a Canadian team must be prepared to answer a relentless stream of tough questions, indictments and complaints. This is where Backlund may not be up to the role of captain.
Tanev could be a choice to sport the letter C given the seemingly high regard in which he is held by the Flames organization. After all, when Monahan was injured last year, management went immediately to him with the alternate captain designation. Yet like Backlund, he may lack the communication skills to be the face of the franchise.
Compared to the other choices the Flames have before them for the captaincy now, it is clear that Coleman deserves a serious look.
A Flames Captain Will Emerge in Time
The Flames are in no rush to settle on a captain. Before training camp, head coach Darryl Sutter said, “I haven’t even really given it (the captaincy) much thought. I think what’s more important is the group itself, the leadership group. I’ve been on championship teams that changed captains and it was never about the ‘C’. It was about the leadership group. That’s an earned position. It’s not a given position.”
Not much appears to have changed since September. Even so, only the New York Rangers have decided to rely on a leadership team of alternates rather than a captain over the long-term. Ryan McDonagh was their last before he was traded to the Lightning in 2018. Aside from the Rangers and Flames, only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres are currently without a captain – presumably temporarily.
Regardless of the approach taken by the Rangers, most teams need a captain and the Flames are no exception. Captains set the tone for a team and define its character. In Calgary, one will emerge in time and Coleman should be in the running for the honour.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney