Best Team Leaders in Stanley Cup Playoff History

Tim Mackay@@TMackers19Correspondent IApril 15, 2012

Best Team Leaders in Stanley Cup Playoff History

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    The Stanley Cup playoffs have the ability to reveal the best in some players. 

    And in order to lift the hardest trophy to win in all of sports, teams need their leaders to raise their games. Whether it's official team captains, emotional leaders or simply the team's best player, heroes are born through the leadership they provide when the games truly matter. 

    Here's a look at ten players who consistently led their teams on and off the ice in the NHL playoffs:

Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens

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    "The Rocket" was the captain of the Canadiens for only five years, but he was the emotional leader of the franchise for much longer.  

    In his Stanley Cup Finals debut in 1944, Richard scored five goals in Game 2, leading the Habs to their first championship in 13 years. 

    In 1955, Richard was suspended for punching a linesman, helping Gordie Howe and the Red Wings to win the Cup in seven games. However, from 1956-1960, the Habs won five championships, and Richard set the Stanley Cup Finals goal record that still stands today. 

George Armstrong, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    "The Chief," as he was appropriately known, is still the Maple Leafs' longest-serving captain.

    For a player who was the team's leading scorer only once, that's an impressive record. 

    Armstrong also happened to lead the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in six years—1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. 1967 in particular was an example in Armstrong's innate ability to lead. The '67 Leafs were fading away: they had twelve players over 30 years old. 

    But even after already winning three Cups in the decade, Armstrong was able to get every ounce of effort out of his aging roster for one last championship. 

Mark Messier, Edmonton Oilers/New York Rangers

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    There's a reason that the leadership award given out by the NHL is named after Mark Messier.

    He captained the Oilers, Rangers and Canucks and is the only player to captain two different teams to the Stanley Cup. 

    He's commonly described as the most respected player in NHL history. Teammates have said that Messier could motivate them with just a look. At the end of the day, Messier's six Stanley Cups—especially the two won without Gretzky in 1990 and 1994—cement him as one of the greatest leaders in NHL playoff history. 

Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Flyers of the mid-'70s were full of "character" players. They had several captain-worthy members, but Bobby Clarke was their leader without a doubt. 

    He played with talent and toughness, setting the tone for both the style of play the Flyers incorporated and the team's personality and identity.

    While Bernie Parent won both Conn Smythe Trophies in 1974 and 1975, Clarke was the spotlight player and driving force behind the Flyers' victories. 

Scott Stevens, New Jersey Devils

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    The captain of the Devils for 13 seasons, Scott Stevens was the most feared defenseman in the world. 

    He was one of those players who became a better player when the games mattered most, and, really, that alone can make a good captain. Stevens lead the Devils to three Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003, winning the Conn Smythe in 2000. 

    His hit on Eric Lindros in the 2000 Eastern Conference Final was the deciding moment of the series.  

Bryan Trottier, New York Islanders

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    When hockey fans think of the dominant teams of the 1980s, they think of the Oilers and the Islanders. 

    However, it would be easy to argue that the Islanders were much more dominant than the star-studded Oilers lineups that followed them.

    In their four straight Cup victories, the Islanders swept their opponents twice, and while Mike Bossy was the offensive leader of the Isles, Bryan Trottier willed them across the finish line. 

    Trottier set a playoff record with 23 assists in 19 games in 1982 and was the heart of the New York dynasty.  

Yvan Cournoyer, Montreal Canadiens

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    Cournoyer was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens from 1975-1979. 

    In that span, the Habs won four Stanley Cups. Cournoyer went four-for-four in Cup Finals during his tenure as the leader of the Canadiens. 

    Like Armstrong, Cournoyer wasn't always the best player on his team, surrounded by legends like Guy LaFleur, Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden. And he always had to compensate for his small size, but he was the undisputed leader of those Habs teams. 

    When he retired in 1979, Cournoyer could count his name 10 times on Lord Stanley's mug. 

Phil Esposito, Boston Bruins

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    When the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972, they had no official team captain.

    Phil Esposito might as well have been wearing the "C."

    After being traded to Beantown in 1967, Esposito became the vocal leader in the Bruins dressing room and helped with the development of Bobby Orr. He also chipped in 51 points in both Stanley Cup years and was likely a close second to Orr in Conn Smythe voting in '70 and '72. 

Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr

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    I've grouped Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr together since they were all incredibly dominant players with similar leadership styles. 

    They were always the leader-by-example type of players, showing their teammates how to win with their dominant play and humble attitudes. They were never the "heart and soul" of their respective teams, but they were always the best players on the ice. 

    Among the three of them, they own eight Stanley Cups, six Conn Smythe trophies and countless scoring records. Enough said. 

Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings

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    You don't become one of the most respected players in the history of the NHL by chance. 

    Steve Yzerman holds the record for the longest-serving NHL captain at 20 years and 1,303 games, and holds three Stanley Cup rings and one Conn Smythe trophy.  

    Yzerman will always be remembered for leading the Red Wings to their first championship in 42 years in 1997, and he revealed his toughness in 2002, battling through knee injuries while scoring 23 playoff points en route to his third and final Cup.

    Yzerman is still one of the most revered athletes in Detroit where he'll always be known as "The Captain."

Honourable Mentions

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    Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche

    Hap Day, Toronto Maple Leafs

    Gordie Howe, Detroit Red Wings

    Jean Beliveau, Montreal Canadiens

    Paul Kariya, Anaheim Mighty Ducks