As the Edmonton Oilers approach a 2016-17 campaign that figures to be a noted improvement over their recent half-decade of disappointment, one remaining step has yet to be taken to truly usher in the new era of Oilers hockey: naming the team’s next captain.
The leading candidate, according to seemingly every publication in existence, is the generational phenom, Connor McDavid. And rightly so. Despite entering the upcoming season at just 19 years old, with only half an NHL season under his belt, the 2015 first-overall pick has already made significant waves throughout the hockey community, proving himself to be on the cusp of becoming one of the game’s legitimate best.
McDavid tallied 16 goals and 48 points in 45 games during his rookie campaign (which was cut short by a fractured clavicle), a pace that projects to roughly 29 goals and 87 points over a full 82-game season. He seems a lock to match or even top that pace next season, as the Oilers should begin the year with a notably improved lineup.
Considering all McDavid has already done in the league, his natural tendency towards leadership, and the high regard in which he’s held by the game’s all-time best talents, it’s tough to find any knocks against the young gun joining the historic ranks of teenage captains.
But it is important to understand what he’s up against.
Who else is in the running for the Oilers’ captaincy? There’s no question someone’s going to get the ‘C’ stitched on their sweater soon, as head coach Todd McLellan has repeatedly stated that his team will have a captain by the time opening night rolls around. Here are the top non-McDavid options for the team’s captaincy:
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jordan Eberle
The last two remaining members of the Oilers’ former Big Three (since star winger Taylor Hall was shipped to New Jersey), both Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle served as alternate captains for Edmonton last season, alongside Hall and former captain Andrew Ference.
The two forwards seem on fairly even ground in regards to their potential as future captains, in that the outlook is pretty bleak.
Both have been key members of the team since their rookie campaigns. Eberle has led the club in scoring on more than one occasion and is now the longest serving of the team’s young core, with Hall out of the picture. On the other hand, Nugent-Hopkins served as the club’s No. 1 centreman up until McDavid’s arrival, and performed admirably in the role, despite his team’s lack of success.
And yet, both forwards have seen their names run through the rumour mill consistently over the past few seasons. Nugent-Hopkins’ situation progressed as far as a nixed trade offer to the Nashville Predators (who opted to take Ryan Johansen instead, sending rearguard Seth Jones the other way). Eberle has seemingly held onto his spot simply because he is a winger and can still be of use alongside McDavid moving forward.
Considering both forwards have flirted with being expendable over the past couple years, a promotion to the captaincy doesn’t seem a likely plot twist.
There’s no question part of the reason general manager Peter Chiarelli brought in his former Boston Bruins power forward was the fact that the 28-year-old brings notable veteran experience in the league.
Lucic is a no-nonsense presence on the ice and in the room. He’s won a Stanley Cup, and he’s proven himself as one of the league’s fiercest competitors. And aside from his unmatched physicality and his status as the league’s most intimidating agitator, Lucic can still perform.
He put up 20 goals and 55 points for the Los Angeles Kings last season, marking the sixth time he’s finished at or above the 20-goal plateau (he’s officially topped it four times, finishing with a career-best 30 goals in 2010-11).
However, the Oilers have a pretty recent example of how such a move can quickly turn sour. Edmonton’s last captain was veteran defender Andrew Ference, who was given the ‘C’ before he played a single game for the Oilers. The result was a tumultuous tenure in which Ference (expectedly) struggled to lead the club’s defensive corps, and also had a few especially inglorious moments that included a suspension and calling out his team in the media.
Lucic is almost certain to have more of an impact than Ference did in his first season in Edmonton. But handing over the captaincy before seeing how he meshes with the group over the course of a full season would be too much of a gamble to put the team through again. And, of course, it’s not as if Lucic isn’t prone to a few inglorious moments himself:
The Veteran Route
Let’s assume the Oilers took a long look at their veterans to see if anyone stood out as a potential leader. Ference is clearly out, as he came up short during his first run as the team leader. Pivot Matt Hendricks (35-years-old) is the oldest member of the team who’s also served in a decently important role. But he’s clearly on the last legs of his career, and there’s hardly a case to be made that he’s more deserving of the leading role than one of the team’s young core stars.
Andrej Sekera would seem to be the other leading veteran on the team. But it’s fair to say the 29-year-old’s first year in Edmonton last season – after coming to town as the marquee offseason acquisition – wasn’t exactly a home run.
To be fair, Sekera didn’t have too much help, and he did manage 30 points. But he also finished with a career-worst minus-15 rating, was surpassed by three other regular defenders in terms of his possession game (Sekera finished with a subpar Corsi For percentage of 49.1), led the Oilers in giveaways, and was surpassed by young Oscar Klefbom as the team’s average minutes-leader.
He’s a solid blue line piece, but last season seemed to prove Sekera isn’t necessarily enough of a key presence to serve as the club’s unequivocal leader.
Looking at the rest of the Oilers’ potential options, the captaincy picture becomes much clearer. Despite what anyone might think about the young McDavid being ready for the role so early in his career, the fact remains that there are simply no other convincing candidates to take the role.
No other member of the team has established themselves as more pivotal to the club’s future, and the Oilers aren’t about to go down the sign-and-‘C’ option once again after the last disappointing go-round.
And so, if it wasn’t already clear enough why McDavid should be captain simply based on his own performance, promise, and dedication to his team’s success, the above-mentioned names should prove that, if nothing else, he’s truly all Edmonton has when it comes to choosing their next leader.