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Ranking the 5 Greatest Captains in Washington Capitals History

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIISeptember 6, 2013

Ranking the 5 Greatest Captains in Washington Capitals History

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    Being named the captain of an NHL team is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a player. A hockey captain is a special kind of player, and not everyone is up to the task.

    Ice hockey captains do not look quite like other captains. In other sports, such as American football, the team captains wear a "C" on their jersey. But with American football, most teams have not one captain but several.

    In hockey, one player—and one player only—is given the honor of having the "C" placed on his sweater. There may be one or two alternate captains who get to wear the well recognized "A" on their jersey, but the man wearing the "C" is different—and everyone knows it.

    This is one of the main reasons the captain of a hockey team is, arguably, more important than the captain, or captains, of teams in other major sports. In football or basketball, the team captain(s) is quite often the superstar of the team, or the best player or perhaps even the most marketable.

    In hockey, the team captain might not be close to being considered the best player on the team. Very frequently in hockey, the team captain is not the best skater, the best scorer or the toughest guy on the team.

    The single most important trait of a great hockey captain is that he leads. He leads by example on the ice, and he leads by example off the ice.

    While captains in other sports are certainly leaders in their own right, only in hockey can that leadership be merged directly with the ability to influence a game.

    Being the captain of a hockey team is also not a task to be taken on lightly. The captain is usually the one to speak up for his team and defend their actions. This requires a level of confidence that most other players just don't have.

    All of this leadership and responsibility makes the man. It is like a sword being forged and molded out of metal. Some men stand up to the process better than others.

    As for the Washington Capitals, 14 men have worn the "C" as captain of the team. Some have done a better job than others. All 14 men have faced tasking circumstances to say the least.

    Which ones have been the best? Which men were able to rise to the challenge better than the others?

    Here are the five greatest captains in the history of the Washington Capitals.

5. Alex Ovechkin

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    This might actually be a bit of a controversial pick at No. 5. Some people like Alex Ovechkin just fine as a captain.

    Most of the people I have talked to or discussed this issue with, however, are not so enthusiastic.

    Let's first take a look at some facts and stats.

    On Jan. 5, 2010, Ovechkin was named team captain.

    At the time Ovi was named captain, he had 26 goals in 33 games. After being named captain, he tallied 24 goals over the final 39 games of the season. That’s not a huge drop off if one looks at it in isolation. But, then take a close look at the 2010-2011 season.

    In Ovi’s first full season as the captain, his production took a major hit. His goals scored dropped to a meager 32. His assists dropped to 53, even though he played in seven more games.

    The following season, his goals scored went back up, as he netted 38. But his assists completely bottomed out, as he had only 27. His points total went down to 65, a 20-point drop from the previous season.

    I openly questioned whether being named captain was the reason for Ovi's dip in production. Had the responsibility of being named captain, something that is almost an afterthought in other sports, gotten the better of the Great 8?

    To a great extent, Ovi silenced the critics with a bounce back season in 2013. Ovi led the NHL with 32 goals, led the NHL in power-play goals with 16, led the NHL in shots-on-goal with 220 and added some more hardware to his collection by winning the Rocket Richard and Hart Memorial trophies.

    But in the playoffs, Ovi ran into problems again as he only had one goal in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers. As the captain, Ovi was the man most responsible to figure out a way to get the Caps past the Rangers, particularly after the Caps led that series 3-2.

    He could not do this, and the Caps suffered another disappointing playoff exit on Ovi's watch.

    In fact, the Caps have suffered some of their most gut-wrenching playoff defeats since Ovechkin was named captain, including the shocking first round loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010, the humiliating sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 and the inability to get past Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in 2012 and 2013.

    By trying to lead by example and being the man responsible for making sure the team plays the way it is supposed to play, did Ovechkin take something away from his game? Did it cause him to be less of a superstar and less like the player he was meant to be? It is something that can be debated back and forth, but the statistics don't lie.

    Sometimes, having your star player be the captain can actually do more harm than good.

    In Ovechkin's defense—and the reason I think he is worthy of a No. 5 ranking on this list—is the fact that no other captain in Caps' history has been under as much pressure to deliver as Ovechkin. The pressure on him is enormous. Fans in D.C. expect a Stanley Cup, and anything less is a huge disappointment.

    To a certain extent, Ovi has delivered, as the Caps have made the playoffs every season he has been captain.

    He will have a difficult task to repeat that feat this season with a tough Metropolitan division standing in his way. Getting to the playoffs will be a challenge; advancing will be even more difficult.

    The 2013-14 season will be Ovechkin's toughest test yet as a captain. If he can meet this challenge, one day he will rank higher on this list.

    If he fails again, he might not appear on a future such list at all.

4. Chris Clark

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    Maybe I am in the minority here, but I feel Chris Clark is one of the more underrated captains in the history of the Washington Capitals.

    Perhaps it is because Alex Ovechkin was the focal point of the team while Clark was captain, so his accomplishments went largely unnoticed. That makes sense, since Ovi was virtually a highlight reel every night.

    When one looks at what the Caps did and accomplished while Clark was the captain though, then I believe some more credit needs to be given to this man.

    In January of 2006, Clark, who had been acquired four months earlier, got placed on the Caps' top line with Ovechkin and Dainius Zubrus. Clark had his best season yet as part of this top line with 20 goals and 19 assists.

    The Caps, however, stumbled along to a 29-41-12 record and finished 14th overall in the Eastern Conference.

    Prior to the start of the 2006-07 season, Clark was named captain of the Capitals. Clark was again placed on the top line, and his stats were even better as he scored 30 goals and had 24 assists.

    While the Caps seemed to be playing better, the final standings did not indicate this as the Caps finished with a record of 28-40-14 and again finished in 14th place overall in the Eastern Conference.

    In 2007, Clark suffered the first of several injuries that would really define his career with the Caps. A groin injury caused Clark to miss all but 18 games that season.

    The Caps as a team, however, gelled behind new head coach Bruce Boudreau and made an incredible run to the playoffs, finishing with a record of 43-31-8. The Caps fell to the Philadelphia Flyers in a great seven-game series that year.

    Clark would return to the lineup for the 2008-09 season, and the Caps continued to improve. In February of 2009 though, Clark would suffer a wrist injury that would end his regular season at just 32 games.

    Clark did return, however, for Game 7 of the Caps' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers. It is hard to say what impact, if any, Clark's return had on the Caps. Still, the Caps prevailed 2-1 in a tight game to complete a rally from a 3-1 series deficit and won their first playoff series of the Ovechkin era.

    Clark would play in all seven games of the classic Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Caps fell short to the Pens yet again.

    Clark again returned as captain for the 2009-10 season, and the Caps turned into a true juggernaut. By December 28, 2009, the Caps had a 24-9-6 record, and they were en route to winning the President's Trophy.

    Clark, however, would not see this happen, as he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 28, 2009, as part of the deal that brought Jason Chimera to D.C.

    Had he not had so many injury problems, I believe Clark could have been higher on this list. As it stands, Clark was the third longest tenured captain in the history of the Capitals, behind two men we will see on this list later on.

    Despite those injuries, it was during Clark's time as captain that the Caps re-emerged as an Eastern Conference power. They made a return to the playoffs on Clark's watch, and they have returned to the playoffs ever season since the 2007-08 campaign.

    Though one cannot take anything away from Ovechkin and how his contributions are the main reason for the Caps' success, I do not believe enough credit is given to Clark for being the rudder of the Caps' ship as they transformed from a sailboat into a battleship over the course of a few seasons.

3. Adam Oates

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    Two of the five men on this list are Hall of Famers. One of them is the current coach of the Washington Capitals.

    That is not a bad resume in and of itself to warrant inclusion on this list. But it is what Adam Oates did while he was captain of the Washington Capitals that convinced me to place him at No. 3 on the list of the greatest Capitals' captains of all time.

    Oates was named captain for the beginning of the 1999-00 season. This was something remarkable considering the fact that Oates did not even want to be a member of the Caps when he was traded to them by the Boston Bruins in March of 1997.

    Oates succeeded Dale Hunter as captain of the Caps, and he obviously had some big shoes to fill. The Caps were just one season removed form their only appearance in a Stanley Cup Final.

    However, that one season, the 1998-99 campaign, had been a disaster. The defending Eastern Conference champions fell completely flat, finished with a terrible record of 31-45-6 and missed the playoffs completely. Hunter's career in D.C. was done, and it was up to Oates to get the Caps back on track.

    Oates did a great job of this—and then some. In 1999-00, the Caps returned to form and won the Southeast division title with a 44-24-12 record. The Caps drew the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs but suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of their arch rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a five game rout of a series.

    During that 1999-00 season, Oates led the Caps with 71 points.

    The next season, Oates led the Caps back to the Southeast division crown with a 41-27-10 mark, good for the No. 3 seed in the East. Once again though, the Caps ran into the Penguins, and once again, the Pens were the better team defeating the Caps in six games.

    Oates, however, had another great season, as he led the NHL in assists with 69.

    After the 2000-01 season though, things soured between the Caps and Oates. Oates demanded a trade, and the Caps refused. To top it off, the Caps stripped Oates of the captaincy. For the 2001-02 season, Steve Konowalchuk and Brendan Witt were co-captains.

    Without Oates leading the way—even though he would again lead the NHL in assists—the Caps faltered. They finished with a record of 36-33-11 and missed out on the playoffs by two points.

    It is therefore relatively easy to see how important Oates was as captain to the Caps. The season before he was named captain and the season after he was stripped of his captaincy, the Caps missed the playoffs.

    In the two years he was captain, the Caps were division champions.

    Nevertheless, Oates was never the most enthusiastic supporter of the Caps while he was a player there, and as a captain, he still could not solve the riddle that was the Pittsburgh Penguins playoff dominance of the Caps.

    Still, Oates was a very effective leader and one of the best captains in the history of the Capitals.

     

     

2. Dale Hunter

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    Dale Hunter is one of the most popular players in the history of the Washington Capitals. He is also one of its more controversial.

    Whether you are pro-Hunter or not, the man was captain of the only Caps' team to ever reach the Stanley Cup Final, and he is the second longest tenured captain in Capitals' history. He is one of only four Caps' players to have had his jersey number retired.

    All in all, that is a pretty good resume for the man I consider to be the second greatest captain in Capitals' history.

    Many people outside of the Caps organization, however, only remember Hunter for the cheap shot he laid on the Islanders' Pierre Turgeon in the closing moments of Game 6 of the 1993 Patrick Division Semifinals.

    But to simply look at Hunter and judge him for that one moment ignores the body of work he put together as a member of the Washington Capitals and, more specifically, as captain.

    As far as all-time records for the Caps, Hunter ranks fifth in points scored, third in assists and 10th in goals scored.

    It was actually Hunter's first year in Washington—the 1987-88 season—when he left his mark in the hearts and minds of Caps fans.

    Hunter would score 22 goals and 37 assists during the regular season. But in the playoffs, he went to another level with seven goals and five assists.

    No goal was bigger than the one he scored in Game 7 of the Patrick Division Semifinal against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Caps had trailed in the series 3-1 and fought their way back to tie the series at 3-3 heading back to the Capital Centre.

    Haunted by the lingering memory of the Easter Epic a year earlier, Game 7 would head into overtime. It was there that Hunter would score a dramatic winner on a breakaway, beating Ron Hextall and sending the Capital Centre into absolute bedlam.

    It remains one of the most iconic moments in the history of the franchise.

    What many do not realize though is that despite the incident with Turgeon, Hunter was named captain for the 1994-95 season. Hunter would serve as captain until the conclusion of the 1998-99 season.

    Though Hunter was no longer a threat to score 20 goals, his leadership, maturity and experience were vital to the Caps.

    During his five years as captain, the Caps would make the playoffs in three of those seasons. For Caps fans though, it was the 1997-98 season that resonates the loudest and justifies Hunter's place as the Caps' second greatest captain ever.

    The Caps had missed the playoffs the season before, and not a lot was expected of them for the 1997-98 campaign. Instead, Hunter led the team to where it had never been before.

    Hunter played in all 82 games. He only had eight goals and 18 assists (although he did rack up 103 penalty minutes), but the Caps surprised many by finishing with a 40-30-12 record. They returned to the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

    Once they got to the playoffs, the Caps surprised everyone with the only run in franchise history all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Hunter played in all 21 games and did not score a goal. He did have four assists and made his presence felt numerous times during the playoff run.

    Consider for a moment that the Caps played in seven overtime games during the 1998 playoffs. They won five of them, including five in a row.

    Hunter had played in numerous overtime games by the time the 1998 playoffs took place, including the four-overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1996. I believe it goes without saying that Hunter's experience in those types of situations was a key reason for the Caps' success during their memorable 1998 playoff run.

    Hunter's career and captaincy with Washington came to an end the following season, as the Caps failed to return to the playoffs. With the season slipping away, Hunter was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche.

    When one looks back at Hunter's body of work as a member of the Capitals though—and in particular as captain of the Caps—it is easy to see why he is one of the greatest captains in the history of the team.

1. Rod Langway

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    It is very difficult to make an argument that Rod Langway is not the greatest captain in the history of the Washington Capitals.

    Langway is the longest tenured captain of the Caps, having assumed the role in 1982 and holding onto it until 1993. That is enough to warrant strong consideration to rank Langway at No. 1.

    But when you look at what happened to the franchise during those 11 seasons, making Langway No. 1 becomes a no-brainer.

    It was not until Langway arrived that the Caps escaped the bonds of true mediocrity and became a very good team.

    In many ways, if not for Langway, there might not be hockey in D.C. any longer. The Caps were on the brink of moving from Washington when Langway was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in a huge trade prior to the 1982-83 season.

    The Caps immediately named Langway team captain—and everything changed.

    Langway helped to transform the team. The Caps would finally break through and make the playoffs in Langway's first season with the team, and they would make the playoffs in each of the next 11 seasons Langway was there.

    While Langway would never be confused with Mike Green as far as a two-way defender was concerned—the most goals he ever scored in a season while playing for the Caps was nine in 1983-84— he was an absolute and complete defender in every other way imaginable.

    He won the Norris Trophy in 1983 and 1984. In many ways, he was a shutdown defender who helped to make the Caps a much more difficult team to score against during the 11 years that Langway was captain.

    As far as being a captain, Langway was tough as nails. He was hard on himself and his team. He commanded respect, demanded results and was not content with settling for second best. It was why he earned the nickname "Secretary of Defense" during his tenure in D.C.

    And even though he did not score a lot, he did score the game-winning overtime goal in Game 4 of the 1990 Patrick Division Final against the New York Rangers.

    That 1989-90 Caps are one of only two Caps teams to ever reach the Eastern Conference Final.

    Langway's jersey number was retired by the Capitals in November of 1997. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002.

    Langway never sought out the adoration of the fans. He rarely clamored for the accolades. He was always more concerned with results than anything else, which is exactly what the Capitals needed while Langway was captain.

    Ironically, that is what made him so popular. There is little question that the man who saved the franchise is one of the most popular players in Capitals' history, and there is even less debate that he was, and is, the greatest captain in the history of the franchise.

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