The title of “captain” in today’s NHL has taken on a bit of a different meaning than it meant in the past decade or two. Today, the captaincy is less about showcasing a player’s leadership and more about showcasing talent. As the captain of any particular team is often the most recognized player on that team, organizations have taken to giving the captain’s “C” to their most talented players, serving as “the face of the franchise.”
For the most part, this hasn’t come back to bite many teams. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Sidney Crosby the captaincy at a very young age (19), despite Crosby still showing some very immature tendencies at the time – both on and off the ice. To his credit, Crosby took the captaincy to heart and matured rather quickly, now serving as the most talented player on the Penguins and the player with the best leadership qualities. The Colorado Avalanche did something similar when they handed the captaincy to Gabriel Landeskog. After two decades of having a veteran player serve as captain of the team, from Joe Sakic to Adam Foote to Milan Hejduk, the Avalanche named Landeskog the captain at the age of 19, just 11 days younger than Crosby when he was given the captaincy.
When Leadership Isn’t A Given
However, equating talent to leadership abilities hasn’t always worked out well. Three teams are facing difficult decisions regarding their captaincy and how much the organization can afford to keep these players around.
Canes GM Ron Francis says it's unlikely either EStaal, Ward will be signed to extensions before season begins.
— Chip Alexander (@ice_chip) September 1, 2015
The Carolina Hurricanes’ captain, Eric Staal, is approaching the end of his current contract, one that’s been paying him an average of $8.25 million over the past six years. And though Staal has often finished those years leading the team in points, the team has missed the playoffs in the majority of those years, and rarely could one say that Staal lived up to his contract on any particular year. As an upcoming unrestricted free agent, Staal will likely be looking for a similar contract next summer, if not a pay raise, but with a self-imposed cap and a steadily decreasing attendance, the Hurricanes may not be willing to pay their current captain what he wants to stick around.
The Los Angeles Kings and Minnesota Wild both face different difficult decisions with their respective captains. Both Dustin Brown and Mikko Koivu were given the “C” when they were considered the most talented players on the team at that particular time. Essentially, they were the big fish in the small pond, and they were given contracts that reflected that. Brown was given a contract that paid him $47 million over eight years and Koivu signed a seven-year deal worth $47.25 with a no-movement clause. However, as the teams became more successful, both Los Angeles and Minnesota became more desirable locations for free agents and traded players, making that “small pond” much bigger.
Today, Brown is seen more as an anchor to the current team than a contributing member. With only 27 points in each of the past two years, his play hasn’t come close to justifying his contract. 1st-line center Anze Kopitar is seen as the “unofficial” captain for many Kings fans, but in any official capacity, Brown still holds onto the “C.” Which may work in the Kings’ favor, as the last thing they need to another thing for Kopitar to hold over them in contract negotiations.
Koivu’s production has remained consistent, but the talent around him hasn’t. After the 2011-2012 season, the Wild shocked the hockey world and managed to snag both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the two most desirable free agents that year. Since then, Minnesota has also grabbed other talented players like Tomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. In addition, young prospect Mikael Granlund has developed into a legitimate top six center. This influx of talent has taken the shine off of Koivu as the only talent on the Wild, causing some to question whether he should be wearing the “C.”
Averaging the Numbers
In today’s NHL, only three teams don’t have a captain listed in any official capacity: The Montreal Canadiens, the New Jersey Devils, and the San Jose Sharks. Of the remaining 27 teams, the average cap hit of the captain is $6.44 million, ranging from Jonathan Toews’ $10.5 million/year to Andrew Ference’s $3.25 million/year. Knowing this, Carolina, Los Angeles, and Minnesota face a difficult decision regarding what to do with their respective captains. All organizations face a tight-rope walk of balancing talent, point production, leadership abilities, and cap hit of their most talented players, and unfortunately, in one aspect or another, the captains of these respective teams have been found lacking.
Jonathan Gardner currently lives in Raleigh, NC and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.