Leaders of the Pack: Do Younger or Older NHL Players Make Better Captains?

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Leaders of the Pack: Do Younger or Older NHL Players Make Better Captains?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Sidney Crosby, the 23-year-old captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins

As we go into the 2010-2011 NHL season, 26 out of 30 teams have captains. Some of these captains have been leading their team for several years, while others received the honor over the summer.

Since NHL captains represent five distinct age groups, I became curious. I wanted to see if it was better for a team to have a younger captain as opposed to an older one who has been playing for several years.

Each side has its pros and cons, and I am going to examine some of the arguments for why a team would pick a younger or older player to lead.

Before I came up with my reasoning, I I gathered a list of captains from every team that has one. After that, I counted how many captains were in each age group.

Here is what I found:

 

20-25 Years Old

Ryan Getzlaf: 25 (Anaheim Ducks)

Eric Staal: 25 (Carolina Hurricanes)

Jonathan Toews: 22 (Chicago Blackhawks)

Dustin Brown: 25 (Los Angeles Kings)

Shea Weber: 25 (Nashville Predators)

Mike Richards: 25 (Philadelphia Flyers)

Sidney Crosby: 23 (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Dion Phaneuf: 25 (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Alexander Ovechkin: 25 (Washington Capitals)

26-30 Years Old

Rick Nash: 26 (Columbus Blue Jackets)

Mikko Koivu: 29 (Minnesota Wild)

Vincent Lecavalier: 30 (Tampa Bay Lightning)

31-35 Years Old

Zdeno Chara: 33 (Boston Bruins)

Jarome Iginla: 33 (Calgary Flames)

Brenden Morrow: 31 (Dallas Stars)

Bryan McCabe: 35 (Florida Panthers)

Brian Gionta: 31 (Montreal Canadiens)

Jamie Langenbrunner: 35 (New Jersey Devils)

Chris Drury: 34 (New York Rangers)

Shane Doan: 33 (Phoenix Coyotes)

Eric Brewer: 31 (St. Louis Blues)

36-40 Years Old

Craig Rivet: 36 (Buffalo Sabres)

Adam Foote: 39 (Colorado Avalanche)

Nicklas Lidstrom: 40 (Detroit Red Wings)

Doug Weight: 39 (New York Islanders)

Daniel Alfredsson: 37 (Ottawa Senators)

 

As you can see, the majority of NHL captains are either early in their careers (ages 20-25) or at their midpoint (ages 31-35).

Here are some reasons to choose as a younger captain over an older captain, and vice versa.

 

Face of the Franchise

Younger captains are easier to market.

Marketing is extremely important to the NHL, so a younger captain will better fit the bill when it’s time to introduce the league and the game of hockey to fans.

Here are some examples:

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is on the cover of NHL 11.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has endorsements for Gatorade, a DVD centered around him, and filmed a commercial where he recreated his childhood by taking shots into his dryer.

Hurricanes captain Eric Staal is one of the faces of the annual “Hockey Fights Cancer” campaign on the NHL’s online shop. He is shown modeling one of the t-shirts available for fans to purchase.

Several younger captains are under long-term contracts with their teams. Flyers captain Mike Richards is under contract until 2020, while Staal has six more years left on his current deal. A team may pick a younger captain because they know the player will be around awhile and not become a journeyman early on.

However, several older captains also fit into this category. Out of the captains in the league that are at least 35 years old, two of them (Nicklas Lidstrom and Daniel Alfredsson) have played their entire NHL career with the team they are the leaders of (Adam Foote, age 39 and captain of the Colorado Avalanche, has spent all but three seasons of his career in Denver).  

Captains that stay with the team a long time are often praised for their dedication. Stars captain Brenden Morrow, who became Dallas’ captain after Mike Modano was asked to step down, has been praised for being the “heartbeat of the team” by former Stars goalie Marty Turco. Former coach Dave Tippett also mentioned that Morrow gives 150 percent effort each time he is on the ice.

When a player is around a long time, they become instantly recognizable. They are used on team marketing materials and represent the league and their team in other avenues such as charity events and on the covers of Sports Illustrated or The Hockey News. Teams also make money off of them through jersey sales, because many fans prefer to buy the jersey of a player they know will be around a long time.

However, when it comes to video games or advertising Gatorade, older captains may not have the same star power. NHL fans, many of whom are young kids and teenagers, tend to relate to younger stars better and are more attracted to a product where they recognize the player promoting it.  

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

This can be one of the drawbacks when a team gives a younger player the privilege of wearing the captain’s “C”.

Before Sidney Crosby was given the captaincy in 2007, he was awarded an “A” in his rookie year by then head coach Michel Therrien. The move backfired around the league, and Don Cherry was especially vocal in expressing the problem he had with it:

“An 18-year-old says he is going to give us ideas,” Cherry said at the time. “What, from the Quebec League he’s going to give them ideas? Come on, that’s ridiculous.”

It may not be spoken about much, but there can still be a sense in some NHL locker rooms of paying your dues. Players and management who have a more traditional way of thinking do not think it is a good idea to give a younger player the captaincy before he has hung around in the league for awhile.

Older players may also be reluctant to take suggestions and speeches from younger players, which could cause problems in the locker room if not handled properly.

Judging by the fact that there are nine captains who are 25 or younger, that way of thinking may be on the way out. However, it can still be an issue at play when selecting a leader.

At the same time, when an older player is captain, they can earn instant respect based on their career. Doug Weight, the current captain of the New York Islanders, was a big name during his days with the St. Louis Blues, so he comes to the Islanders with a legacy in place.

Weight was previously the captain of the Edmonton Oilers from 1999-2001. While he was in Edmonton, the team went to the playoffs five times, and two of those appearances came when he was the leader. He was also a Stanley Cup champion with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, so he has a track record of accomplishments. It would be difficult for his current teammates to disrespect that.

Older captains have also dealt with adversity that younger players may not have experienced yet. They may have gone through more injuries and seen more playoff disappointment. They can use their experiences to help younger players adjust to the realities of the NHL.

 

Player Development

Appointing a younger captain can help with his player development, and some players have seen their careers get better once they are named captain.

Before Toews was the captain of the Hawks, he was nominated for the Calder Trophy as an alternate captain in the 2007 season. Although he lost to teammate Patrick Kane, the best was yet to come.

Toews was chosen as the captain of the Hawks before the 2008-2009 season. Since then, he has been to the 2009 NHL All-Star Game as a starter, tallied two career hat tricks, and won the Conn Smythe as the Stanley Cup Playoff MVP.

After he raised the Stanley Cup in June, he became the youngest player to become a member of the Triple Gold Club. This club is reserved for players who have won a Stanley Cup, a gold medal at the World Championships, and an Olympic gold medal.

An older captain can also help in the development of younger players and lead a team back to excellence.

This past year, the Colorado Avalanche returned to the playoffs after missing them in the 2008-2009 season. Colorado was, and still is, a young team with several players under age 25, and 11 of those players played in the postseason.

Foote probably played a big part in helping these younger players find their way. He won two Cups with Colorado in 1996 and 2001 and has been around the block, so he probably knew just what to say to help his younger teammates.

Although Colorado was eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, there is a lot of promise for 2010-2011.

 

Conclusions

Based on my research and my own opinions, I am not strongly in favor of having a younger captain or an older captain.

I believe every team needs to go with what is best for them. A younger captain may help a team who is rebuilding and needs to form a new presence in their market, but an older captain would be better for a team with several young players who need to find their way.

If you were an NHL player or coach and trying to appoint a captain on your team, who would you pick? Do you think 23-year-old Sidney Crosby is a better choice than 40-year-old Nicklas Lidstrom, or would you shoot down the middle and go with 33-year-old Jarome Iginla?

As always, let me know your thoughts.

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