There is a discrepancy in opinion among many hockey fanatics as to how important captains are for NHL teams. Some believe captains represent the organization and therefore carry great significance, while others feel they are simply showmen who speak to referees.
Regardless of how one feels about captains, they do play a role in professional hockey. They perform pre-game acts such as ceremonial puck-drops and award presentations, but more importantly they serve as leaders on and off the ice, including representing the team to referees and being the most vocal members of their respective organizations off the ice.
With the knowledge of what a captain does in mind, it is interesting to look at trends regarding the label in the NHL. Of the 30 teams in the NHL, all but the Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs have captains in place. Out of the 26 captains currently in place, 10 are centers, nine are wings and five are defensemen.
This lends itself to the theory that forwards hold more responsibility than defensemen, but the trend may point towards defensemen gaining recognition. Four of the five defensemen were named captain since 2014, with each serving as a two-way defenseman outside of Andy Greene. Zdeno Chara joins the two-way defenseman category, showing that there is an appreciation in today’s NHL for defensemen that can step up in the play and contribute in multiple aspects.
Continuing the trend of two-way players earning respect for captainship, forwards are also respected for their ability to contribute on both ends. There are the superstar forwards such as Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares who earn respect for simply being outstanding, but there are also regular Selke nominees that hold the prestigious honor.
It is no fluke that Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews are captains, as they are some of the best two-way forwards in the NHL. Captains must be able to play complete games or excel beyond expectations in one area, so players that can be outstanding across the board certainly fit the bill.
For wings, the trend is being a leading scorer on the team. Jamie Benn, Max Pacioretty, Alex Ovechkin and Blake Wheeler all are talented in other facets of the game but are appreciated mostly for their ability to put the puck in the back of the net. They lead their teams by example, not being relied on as much for their two-way games as their offensive abilities. Even Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan was most known throughout his career for his scoring touch, fitting the trend as well.
To fit the NHL captains under one blanket, the trends point to defensemen being able to join the rush successfully, centers being gifted across the rink, and wings being scoring threats. There is one other main factor in selecting a captain, and that is tenure with the team.
The New York Rangers’ last two selections were players that grew up in the organization in Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Callahan, rather than two veterans in Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards. While Mark Messier or Wayne Gretzky would automatically be named captain of whichever team they joined in the past, the new trend is to give those players an alternate captain role and pick a player that has grown with the organization.
Of the 26 Captains, only Brian Gionta and Nick Foligno were with their respective organizations for fewer than three seasons before being named Captain. Twenty-one of the 26 never played for another organization, showing that teams appreciate consistency and continuity in who gets the gig.
As for the remaining four captain slots with these trends in mind, the Carolina Hurricanes best bet would be Justin Faulk. Faulk grew up in the organization, is a tremendous two-way defenseman and already has an A on his sweater. In Edmonton Connor McDavid is a no-brainer if the team feels he is ready, if not the team could roll multiple alternates for a season then hand him the job.
Florida should select Aaron Ekblad for similar reasons to both Faulk and McDavid, with Ekblad showing the ability to lead a defense before he turns 21 already in his career.
Finally, the Toronto Maple Leafs should not name a captain. This may be surprising considering the discussion of the importance of a captain, but considering that importance it is also important not to rush into selecting one. Toronto has plenty of young talent that could grow into leadership roles, so the best bet would be to wait and see who steps up for the future.