That is one of the reasons why there are eight NHL captaincy vacancies as the 2013-14 season approaches. It also creates noticeable space for someone else to fill in virtually any debate surrounding those who sport a “C” over the heart of their jersey.
While there are only 22 of them at the moment, an easy majority of the NHL’s incumbent captains could contend for a share of the “most respected” pie. They are the players who may or may not be of celestial status, but who nonetheless inspire their teammates with their compete level and, even if they do carry a superior skill set, demonstrate a willingness to do grunt work.
They are also the ones whose all-out effort radiates the most when a key achievement or an extension of the season is at stake.
With special emphasis on fresh (i.e. one or two-year-old) input from those who share a dressing room and bench with them, here are the NHL’s 10 most respected current captains.
Shortly before the belated start to the 2012-13 NHL season, Panthers Sun Sentinel beat writer Craig Davis reported that “when coach Kevin Dineen gathered the team at the BB&T Center during Friday’s practice and bestowed the honor of captain on veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski the endorsement came in the hockey tradition of sticks banging on the ice. It was immediate and unanimous.”
The same article went on to dole out affirmative quotes from Dineen as well as Stephen Weiss, who was the longest-tenured Panther at the time.
Sure, Florida floundered in the subsequent campaign, failing to defend its 2011-12 Southeast Division title and regressing to its non-playoff ways. However, it did not help their cause to have a multitude of key injuries, including two to Jovanovski that cost him a combined 41 games.
Considering his reception during the first week of practice, the fact that Jovanovski mustered only six appearances clearly constituted a part of a spiritual letdown for the Panthers. It was not the sole factor in their disappointing season (there never is a single reason for something like that) but his active presence surely would have made for at least a somewhat more savory result.
Davis’ reportage spoke to a squad looking forward to formal leadership via a veteran of more than 1,000 games who held alternate captaincies in Vancouver and Phoenix.
Twice in the last three years, Zdeno Chara has literally led the Boston Bruins to the Prince of Wales Trophy. After his team’s Eastern Conference playoff title clincher in both 2011 and 2013, he shook hands with presenter Bill Daly and then called his teammates over for an impromptu photo-op.
Shortly after the second of those clinchers this past spring, Bruins forward Rich Peverley described Chara’s influence on the Boston blue-line brigade to The Sporting News as follows: “That guy is one of the most dedicated athletes I’ve ever played with. He’s definitely been able to teach them things. It’s really exciting for the organization.”
Together with head coach Claude Julien, Chara has helped the Bruins to six consecutive playoff appearances. Besides the aforementioned two appearances in the finals over the latter half of that span, the team has gone an impressive 10-5 when facing elimination.
The most recent of those must-win victories was a historic Game 7 triumph over Toronto in the opening round of the 2013 tournament. Boston had trailed, 4-1, at the second intermission and as late as the halfway mark of the third period, only to surmount the deficit en route to a 5-4 overtime clincher.
As Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley subsequently wrote, “So drenched was Chara during his postgame chat with the media that he looked like a puddle suspended by wire.”
Considering the preceding events, that appearance had to be a product of plenty of inspirational verbal exertion as well as physical.
Although he has only been captaining the Red Wings for one season, and a shortened one at that, Henrik Zetterberg has rapidly demonstrated why the job went to him.
After Detroit clinched a playoff berth at the eleventh hour and overcame a 3-2 series deficit to upset Anaheim in the first round, nhl.com’s Corey Masisak whipped up an insightful case study of Zetterberg’s influence.
One teammate, Joakim Andersson, told Masisak “He does everything. He competes hardest of anybody on the ice most of the nights. That’s the biggest part of why he’s such a good leader.”
Masisak quoted another Wing, Justin Abdelkader, as follows: “He’s been a little more outspoken then he was in the past, but otherwise he’s been the same…He goes about his business…When he’s had to he’s spoken, and he’s had big games when we needed him. He’s been really good for us.”
That competitive fire and those big games Andersson and Abdelkader speak of, respectively, included three straight multi-point efforts in the Anaheim series. That includes a two-goal, three-point performance complete with a game-winning strike when Detroit faced elimination and then a 1-1-2 transcript on the road in Game 7.
None of that, though, would have been possible if not for another two-goal, three-point night with a game-winning strike on April 27. That was when the Wings needed a victory to clinch their playoff passport, which they did with a 3-0 decision in Dallas.
Zetterberg later tallied his team’s lone goal the night they were eliminated.
A career-long constituent of the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise, Shane Doan drew multiple handfuls of suitors as a free agent in the summer of 2012. This was when he was coming off his 15th NHL campaign, complete with a Mark Messier Leadership Award.
In the midst of the speculation that Doan would possibly switch crests, Coyotes teammate Paul Bisonnette told sportsnet.ca “It would be a very eerie feeling going in there and getting ready for games without Shane Doan coming in the middle of the room…You can see why teams are offering him (contracts), because leadership is hard to come by, especially with guys like Shane Doan.”
As it happened, Phoenix re-upped Doan for another four seasons. That was shortly before a four-month lockout kicked in and, in a way, all NHL players became Doan’s teammates.
When it was over and normalcy resumed in January, though, Coyotes forward Mikkel Boedker told USA Today of his captain “He’s just a guy that cares for everybody.”
Boedker spoke those words in the wake of Doan's influence on the NHLPA in its labor battle, but they easily could have carried a twofold meaning with dressing room speeches in mind.
In two seasons of existence, the Winnipeg Jets have missed the playoffs, but have not exactly conceded defeat merely because they were in the Southeast Division. They finished eight points and three spots out of the bracket in 2011-12 and only four points behind the eighth-seeded Islanders in 2012-13.
Andrew Ladd, who took the “C” with him when the team moved from Atlanta, is a conspicuous reason why.
Before this past season even began, teammate Blake Wheeler told the Winnipeg Sun that Ladd is “A good leader is someone who doesn’t necessarily need to say a whole lot, someone who guys look up to and say, this guy does what it takes day-in and day-out and he’s all about winning.”
Three months later, as the Jets were fighting to sustain their playoff viability, Ladd turned in a clutch performance en route to a 4-3 shootout victory, prompting a column of commendation from Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press.
In his own account of the same game, Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated wrote “If he can’t find a way with his touch, he’ll grit his teeth, lower his shoulder and clear the path.”
With realignment finally taking effect, the Jets will face less schedule and travel-induced adversity from here on out. They will, however, have to overcome the likes of Chicago, Minnesota, Nashville and St. Louis to cement a foundation.
But it’s safe to assume that under Ladd, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, a valiant fight is in the cards.
If it takes a big man to cry, then Brian Gionta’s 5’7 posture is more deceptive than most people even realized.
The Canadiens captain has reluctantly ended each of his last two seasons prematurely due to a biceps injury. The first instance cost him virtually the entire second half of 2011-12 while the second ended his playoff participation two games before the Senators eliminated the Habs.
Prior to those injuries, the Montreal Gazette’s Dave Stubbs underscored the way Gionta “crashes the net or goes hard into the corners, inevitably crushed for it” as well as “work ethic, practice habits, the silky way he moves through his life, whether the cameras are on or off.”
Besides Therrien’s installment as head coach in the summer of 2012, Gionta’s smoother ride on the health front during the regular season was doubtlessly an upper-tier factor in the Habs’ turnaround. They went from last to second in the Eastern Conference, in part, because he was available for all 48 games and thus able to inspire through action.
As two of his teammates verified in a February interview with usahockey.com, David Backes talks and acts with equal effectiveness like he wants success for the St. Louis Blues.
Jamie Langenbrunner told author John Tranchina, “He’s not afraid to say something, not afraid to speak up when need be, but his actions are what sets him apart. He pushes guys in the right direction and I think our team is a reflection of him in the way we play and the way we come to work every night.”
Added Andy McDonald in the same story, “He’s not afraid to stand up and say something in the room when it needs to be said, and he backs it up on the ice with his play and the way he approaches the game.”
Indeed, Backes has easily been St. Louis’ leader under the hits heading for each of the last six seasons. The fact that he has finished first among the Blues in takeaways three times and second on another occasion only amplifies his persona as a fastidious pursuer of the puck.
Amidst Backes’ consistently exemplary performances over his first six full NHL seasons, the Blues have evolved into a contender with a gritty ensemble cast. Lately, their only problem has been a certain postseason nemesis on the Pacific coast led by a similarly feisty forward with their “C” on his jersey (more on him later)
That aside, the fact that he garnered a nomination for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top two-way forward undoubtedly thickened the ice for Backes to stand on as a vocal leader.
One of the reasons behind those back-to-back nominations is the Kings captain’s pledge to donate $50 to charity per hit on his transcript.
Lately, there has been no shortage of gifts for good causes or energizing physicality for the Los Angeles faithful. In chronological order over the last four regular seasons alone, Brown has landed 287, 300, 293 and 156 body-checks.
He may not have won any individual hardware, at least not yet, but Brown did garner a handsome eight-year contract extension barely a month ago.
Upon finalizing that deal, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told the Los Angeles Daily News, “He’s a classic case of somebody’s who’s grown, not only as a player but as man, every year. When I first got here, it was very difficult to get two words out of him. To see how much he's grown as a person is as incredible as his game.”
That is why Backes’ Blues have yet to go deep into the postseason, having run into L.A. in the second round of 2012 and the first round in 2013.
Ryan Callahan garnered the New York Rangers captaincy prior to the 2011-12 season, concomitant with the arrival of prized free agent Brad Richards.
As those new teammates were convening with the rest of the Blueshirts in mid-September of that year, Richards told nhl.com’s Dan Rosen, “You can get a sense of (Callahan’s leadership) right away…I kind of knew anyway coming in. The people I talked to gave me an idea of who would be like that. It’s just very easy to have him as your leader.”
At that time, Callahan was coming off a run of 224 hits in 60 appearances. Had he dressed for the full 2010-11 schedule, he surely would have led the team in that category, just as he had in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Since assuming his formal leadership position, Callahan has again topped the Rangers’ body-checking chart with 271 in 2011-12 and 154 in 2012-13. In addition, he has led all of his fellow forwards in the way of blocked shots in both years.
That would help to explain why, in April 2012, Ranger Mike Rupp told the New York Times, “I know ‘leader by example’ can be a cliché in sports, but Cally is the ultimate.”
While his teammates filled the net as needed, Jonathan Toews sweetened the flavor of his four-game scoreless start to the playoffs by helping to handcuff Minnesota’s top offensive troika in a five-game, first-round victory.
When his Chicago Blackhawks inched to the brink of elimination, Toews continued a career-long trend by perking the club back up through words and actions. His Game 5 goal and two Game 6 assists helped to percolate a rally from a 3-1 series deficit to abolish Detroit in the conference semifinals.
A month later, in the immediate afterglow of a title, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told ESPN Chicago the following:
“The bigger the game, the bigger the setting, you know what you’re going to get from Jonathan Toews. He just knows how to play hockey. Whether he’s productive or not, absorbs a lot of big minutes from their matchup guys and he never gets outscored…The one thing is he plays the way you want a hockey player to play, and our captain, as well.”
Really, the results from Chicago’s last five playoff runs speak to how eager the Blackhawks are to follow their beyond-his-years leader. So far in Toews’ six-year career and five-year captaincy, the Hawks are 7-3 when facing elimination and 10-2 when trying to close out an adversary.
Leadership-wise, the exclamation mark on that resilience and killer instinct, which has amounted to two Stanley Cups in four years, has come through in his eagerness to assuage long-suffering veterans. After the traditional formalities of accepting the Cup, Toews has made headlines by handing the trophy over to Marian Hossa in 2010 and Michal Handzus in 2013.