The Devils’ Search For Their Captain

The New Jersey Devils winning ways at one time seemed eternal. For 10 years, from 1995 to 2005, the Devils reigned over the Eastern Conference. So long as Lou Lamoriello was in charge, Devils fans and even the players had unwavering confidence in his ability to assemble a playoff-bound roster.

A History of Leaders

It has been four years since he left and Devils fans are missing “Uncle Lou”. The Devils’ years of dominance, however, may not be as much a credit to Lamoriello as to another individual. In their glory years, the Devils were led by defensive warrior Scott Stevens. Stevens was notorious for his timely, bone-jarring hits, but more so he was revered for his work ethic and relentless drive. He could raise his team from the dead and rouse a crowd with the best of them.

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Former Devil John Madden once said of his former teammate, “everyone worked hard, because if you didn’t, you had a problem with Scotty”.

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This distinction brings new meaning to Lamoriello’s decision to pursue Stevens as the lone compensation for Brendan Shanahan in 1991. The mere fact the Blues had already forfeited five first-round picks for Stevens and named him captain in his first season over Adam Oates and Brett Hull suggested Lamoriello was right on target.

After 13 consecutive playoff appearances – 4 visits to the Cup Final and 3 championships – the magic in New Jersey began to wane. Stevens retired in the midst of a league lockout in 2004-05 and the franchise began to stumble. As the years passed, it became more apparent just how vital he was. Since the 1997 season, only one team had more consecutive playoff appearances, the Detroit Red Wings, with 25. The beginning of their long run began with the arrival of Steve Yzerman, their future Hall of Fame captain. It is no coincidence that two dynasties of the same era were captained by one man for the duration. Both players had their name hammered into eternity not once, but thrice!

Steve Yzerman Detroit Red Wings
Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

My conviction has grown stronger that the key component of a championship team is its captain and I wanted to prove it, because once again the Devils are in search of a captain to lead them back to the playoffs. Initially, I thought a simple comparison of the past Cup winners, by captain, would reveal a pattern and I found what I was looking for. The records show the Stanley Cup being hoisted repeatedly by the same captains for 71 of the 101 Stanley Cup seasons.

Many of them had two or three and a few had four-plus rings. But there is even more evidence to substantiate this captain theory and I found it in Sam Walker’s book, The Captain Class. Published in 2017, Walker was able to illuminate the shadows where many of sports greatest captains have hidden. He determined that the best of captains – the true leaders – had a select set of traits in common. Almost never were they the most skilled player on the team or the greatest of all time in their position.

Internal Options

To no surprise, the Devils will start their search for a leader within the organization. The process of finding and even selecting a captain can be daunting for coaches. Many have been caught in the popularity trap or succumb to selection bias. Some players expect to be called upon; others want to choose their own leader, and then management usually ruins things.

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There are numerous considerations to be weighed but it is my belief that there are only so many captains in the world and the search for the one, should be exploratory with no boundary. I could name a few established team veterans worthy of consideration, however, we should also consider the string of youthful captains in recent years across the league.

There may be a psychological basis for having the speedy young lads setting the example – forcing veterans to keep up or risk losing their jobs. Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, and Jonathan Toews come to mind. When I go further back, I think of Stevens, Yzerman, and Mario Lemieux, who were all young captains. If I go even further into hockey lore, Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe.

Jonathan Toews Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

They were all tireless warriors, willing to do the dirty work that no one else would. They didn’t crave the spotlight but yielded it to others. In the final seconds, they spent their last drops of sweat and at the most inopportune times they’d take a penalty, or a calculated risk when you consider the success rate of odd-man rushes.

The most obvious incumbents donning red and black are Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, and Nico Hischier. Zajac is a fan favorite but would be more honorary than strategic. Though he may be the team’s highest scorer, Palmieri’s experience is most appealing considering he’s been to the Cup Final. But he has selfish tendencies unbecoming of a captain – it may not be best to weigh down the speedster with such lofty expectations.

Nico Hischier
Nico Hischier #13, New Jersey Devils (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Hischier on the other hand is quickly becoming a veteran on a young team and has already committed another six years. He is relentless and plays with the same tenacity of Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. I love watching Toews play; he is an exemplary captain and leaves it all on the ice every shift. He too has hoisted the Cup three times.

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These young guns can be contagious and that is a quality that may serve the Devils well, but they have to get this selection right as they imbibe in the growing pains of culture change. So, there must be someone out there who already knows how to be a captain, someone who already knows what it takes to get over the top!

Pursuing Another Blues Captain

The Devils have gone beyond the fence line for a captain once before. In what proved to be a stroke of genius, the Prudential Center now has three Stanley Cup banners adorning its rafters. Since hardly any team ever trades their captain (tongue-in-cheek), a real opportunity may reveal itself this summer when the NHL free agency period opens. Shockingly, the St. Louis Blues have yet to sign their Stanley Cup captain – Alex Pietrangelo – who is sure to command a raise in salary. It was the Blues who gave up their captain, Scott Stevens, nearly 30 years ago. If they do it again, should the Devils seek out a long-term contract with Pietrangelo, and name him captain?