NHL Captains with Toughest Jobs in the 2013-14 Season

Daniel WagnerFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2013

NHL Captains with Toughest Jobs in the 2013-14 Season

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    On Monday, the New York Islanders named 22-year-old John Tavares the 14th captain in franchise history. It was an unsurprising move, as Tavares is the face of the franchise, leading the team in scoring in each of his first four years.

    Tavares becomes one of the youngest captains in the league on a team with a lot of pressure to follow up its first playoff appearance in six years with a strong season. But how does his task stack up against other captains across the NHL?

    Captains are inevitably held to a higher standard by the media—expected to speak after every game, whether a great win or a tough loss. Fans expect more out of captains, with every team failure frequently seen as a failure of leadership. Captains communicate with the referees on the ice, acting as a go-between for the referees and the team. Captains are also relied upon to be mediators between the coaching staff and the rest of the players, communicating team messages and setting an example.

    Here are the 10 captains facing the most difficult roads ahead in the 2013-14 season, starting with number 10.

     

     

10. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Sidney Crosby is the youngest captain in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup and is nigh indisputably the best hockey player on the planet. That buys him a fair amount of leeway, but it also raises expectations. As the face of the NHL, Crosby faces constant scrutiny, and the Penguins are always in the limelight.

    The Penguins survived a first-round scare from the New York Islanders last season but ended up getting swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. That's four seasons without a Stanley Cup Final appearance for a team that fans hoped was on the verge of becoming a dynasty.

    The team will have to answer questions about its defensive responsibility and the ability of 2003 first overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury. As the captain, Crosby is the one called upon to answer those questions and has already reaffirmed his confidence in Fleury. It's a captain's job to defend his teammates, but that could potentially get harder and harder if Fleury's struggles continue.

    With that said, the criticism of Crosby will never be too harsh as long as he's leading the league in points.

9. John Tavares, New York Islanders

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    The departure of Mark Streit to Philadelphia made John Tavares, who is already the face of the franchise, the obvious choice to be captain. The Islanders don't have any significant veterans signed long-term, so there were few other options, but Tavares fortunately makes sense.

    Thanks to the Islanders' internal budget constraints, Tavares will be leading a team with a limited supporting cast who raised expectations with its strong performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. Tavares' leadership will be a key element in proving whether the young Islanders will be able to live up to those expectations.

    Still, there's an understanding with the Islanders that their penny-pinching ownership will make it difficult to sustain success from season to season, making Tavares' job a little bit less stressful.

     

8. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche

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    The youngest captain in NHL history now has to deal with a veritable legend as his new head coach. Patrick Roy is used to winning and has a notoriously fiery personality, and Gabriel Landeskog will potentially be in Roy's sights if the season starts to go sour.

    That would already be a lot of pressure for a 20-year-old, but Landeskog also has to deal with being the captain of a team that has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons.

    Colorado saw a lot of success when it first came into the league, and the city is growing weary of repeated failures. New general manager Joe Sakic will get the benefit of the doubt in his first year, and fans understand that there will be a rebuilding process. But they've been dealing with a rebuild for several years already with limited signs of results.

    Landeskog's first year as captain coincided with a disastrous sophomore slump. If he continues to struggle to match his rookie season, how long until fans start to question the decision to make him a captain at such a young age?

7. As Yet Unnamed, Edmonton Oilers

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    Oilers fans are more than ready for their team's bevy of high-end prospects to carry Edmonton back into the playoffs. With the trade of Shawn Horcoff, the Oilers need to name a new captain to lead their young core, and whoever it ends up being will be under the gun immediately to succeed.

    Unexpectedly, rumours emerged in late August that Sam Gagner, a target of trade discussion for the past couple years, was to be named the new captain, which would add another odd wrinkle. He's not considered one of the team's elite offensive forwards despite finishing second in team scoring last season, and he's not a veteran, as he's still just 24.

    He also hasn't been an alternate captain, while both Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall have been. Other options include new arrival Andrew Ference, Ryan Smyth and Ladislav Smid. Whoever it ends up being will face immediate pressure from the City of Champions, which hasn't seen a champion in far too long.

6. Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild

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    Mikko Koivu was the first permanent captain for the Minnesota Wild after the team confusingly rotated the captaincy on a monthly basis for its first nine seasons. Unsurprisingly, Koivu has a lot of respect in Minnesota, but the situation has changed over the last year.

    With the acquisition of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the expectations in Minnesota skyrocketed. While it did make the playoffs last season, it was by the skin of its teeth, going 5-8-1 down the stretch and tying the Columbus Blue Jackets in points, only finishing eighth in the Western Conference on the strength of regulation and overtime wins.

    The Wild also have a lot of youth starting to crack the lineup, such as Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, with Koivu needing to provide the leadership necessary to help integrate them into the lineup. Niederreiter has already been training with Koivu in Finland.

    The talent is now there in Minnesota. If success doesn't follow, hard questions will be asked of the team's leadership, starting with Koivu.

5. Bryce Salvador, New Jersey Devils

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    Farewell Ilya Kovalchuk. Hello culture change in New Jersey. Bryce Salvador will bear a lot of responsibility for redefining the Devils' culture with Ilya Kovalchuk departing for the KHL. Kovalchuk's absence will make a massive difference, as the Russian winger led the team in ice time and controlled the power play, frequently playing for the entire two minutes.

    The Devils also lost power forward David Clarkson but have new faces in Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe and Jaromir Jagr. That's a significant amount of change to handle for the team's leadership, with new Jersey fans hoping for a quick return to the postseason.

    Salvador's first season as captain of the Devils went horribly awry, as New Jersey missed the playoffs after going to the Stanley Cup Final the previous year. Salvador faced individual struggles as well, turning in one of the poorest performances of his career on the blue line. He'll be looking for personal redemption while trying to lead the Devils to salvation.

4. As Yet Unnamed, Ottawa Senators

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    Whoever gets named team captain in Ottawa will have some big shoes to fill with the departure of longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson to the Detroit Red Wings. The two main candidates are Jason Spezza and Chris Phillips, two very different players but also the longest serving Senators.

    The new captain will be leading a team with more changes than just an Alfredsson-shaped hole. Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur and Joe Corvo are the major additions to a team that some think overachieved last season.

    The pressure will be on to prove that last season's success wasn't a fluke. Meanwhile, other Senators fans will expect even more success after the injury-ravaged Senators pulled off an upset in the first round of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens.

    Spezza appears to be the favourite right now, but he has the added difficulty of missing the bulk of last season with back and knee injuries. He also has a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed by Team Canada when he didn't get an invite to its Olympic orientation camp.

    Spezza will look to make it impossible for Team Canada to leave him off the team, but that may prove a distraction if he takes on a larger leadership role in Ottawa.

     

3. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks

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    The Vancouver Canucks have been considered Stanley Cup contenders for several years, but many feel like their window is closing rapidly with just one trip to the Stanley Cup Final to their credit. The choice of Henrik Sedin as captain has been criticized in some corners, as Henrik doesn't seem to fit the bill as an emotional leader.

    Last season, the Canucks were swept in the playoffs by the lower-seeded San Jose Sharks, heightening the criticisms of the Canucks and their captain. With that disappointment came change, as longtime coach Alain Vigneault was fired, and John Tortorella was brought in.

    Henrik had a good relationship with Vigneault and thrived offensively under him. Now, under Tortorella, he will be asked to do more defensively—blocking shots and killing penalties. He'll also need to mediate between the coach and the team if (or when) things get testy.

    Let's not forget the return of Roberto Luongo, who isn't exactly thrilled about returning to Vancouver.

    How will the soft-spoken Canucks captain respond to Tortorella's abrasive coaching style? Will he be able to bring the room together and lead the Canucks back to the Stanley Cup Final? The coming season will be a true test of Henrik's leadership.

2. Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The spotlight always burns bright in Toronto, and it's going to be brighter still in the coming season. Dion Phaneuf, already a target for the team's fickle fanbase—and the occasional former assistant general manager—will face even more scrutiny if the Leafs fall short of the playoffs after they got an all-too-short taste of the postseason for the first time since the 2004-05 lockout.

    That playoff run ended in spectacular fashion, as the Leafs gave up a three-goal lead with just over 10 minutes remaining in game seven against the Boston Bruins in the first round. That certainly didn't help Phaneuf's reputation as a leader, and it called into question the makeup of the team.

    The Leafs then made a big splash in the offseason, spending big in free agency with the signing of David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. That kind of commitment would seem to signal that the Leafs think the team is ready to compete with the best in the NHL and puts even more pressure on Phaneuf to lead the way. 

    Expectations are higher in Toronto than they've been for a long time, but there are many indications that they'll fall far short of those expectations. Being a captain in Toronto is always going to be a tough job, as the Leafs have most media attention in the NHL, but it will get tougher in a hurry if Phaneuf and the Leafs stumble out of the gate. 

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Alex Ovechkin may have recovered his superstar status with a fantastic second half last season and the third Hart Trophy of his career, but he has yet to lead the Capitals to a Stanley Cup Final, let alone the league's ultimate prize. As one of the faces of the NHL, Ovechkin has received extreme scrutiny and criticism from the media.

    Rightly or wrongly, the decision to make Ovechkin the captain of the Capitals has been questioned repeatedly, with his slumping point totals adding fuel to the fire.

    Ovechkin certainly has plenty of defenders, but the narrative in the media constantly contrasted his individual flashiness with the seemingly more team-oriented Sidney Crosby. Whether that's fair to Ovechkin is beside the point, as it all plays into the pressures facing him heading into the coming season.

    What won't help is the distraction of the Sochi Olympics, where Ovechkin will be expected to win gold in his home country. That could lead to questions if the Capitals struggle leading up to or coming out of the Olympic break. Russia hasn't won gold at the Olympics since 1988, when it was the Soviet Union, and hasn't won a medal since 2002. Meanwhile, the Capitals have never won the Stanley Cup.

    Ovechkin will be facing the pressure to lead both Russia and the Capitals to championships in the coming season, which makes Ovechkin's job the most difficult of all the NHL captains.