NHL History: Best Captain Ever of Each NHL Team, Part III
In the first installment of this series, the criteria for determining each team's all-time captain were laid out. There could not have been another captain of their team during the franchise's most successful seasons, and their individual greatness was also considered.
This created much difficulty in selecting captains. Some teams had little playoff success, had multiple captains who had approximately equal success or even were without a captain for their best seasons.
Yet based on the responses, the only controversy over the first 10 franchises' selections for the greatest captain of all time appeared to be Nicklas Lidstrom over Steve Yzerman. (You can see the reasons for that decision by clicking the above link.)
The second article in the series was met with only resistance on the assertion that Gordie Howe was a better player all-time than Wayne Gretzky. It is always difficult to compare players from different eras, especially when some were not seen, but they do make for wonderful Internet discussion fodder.
The question is, if you were a general manager and you could take a player who would be great for two decades or dominant for one, who would you take?
It is likely that most GMs would want to know they did not have to draft another great player for the second decade.
Will this one have more debate? Perhaps you will have to weigh in when you see who is picked as the all-time captains for the remaining 10 franchises...
Philadelphia Flyers: Bobby Clarke
The list of captains to consider for the Philadelphia Flyers' all-time captain was exactly one player long.
The Flyers are in their 45th year as a franchise and have only won two Stanley Cups, in 1974 and 1975. Bobby Clarke became the captain of the team in the 1973-1974 season and held the post for the next six years, plus two more from 1982-1984.
However, even had the Flyers won the Cup in either of their two conference championship years under Dave Poulin (1985, 1987) or the ones under Mel Bridgman (1980), Eric Lindros (1997) or Mike Richards (2010), this would be no contest.
For one, Lindros was too selfish to be considered a great leader. And leading a team to one title certainly would put anyone at a disadvantage compared to someone who has accomplished two.
But Clarke also had a third conference championship and is the franchise's all-time leader in many categories, with 1,144 games and 1,210 points, a plus-506 rating and 32 short-handed goals. He also showed up in the playoffs, leading the Flyers all-time in postseason games (136), assists (77) and points (119).
Phoenix Coyotes: Shane Doan
The Phoenix Coyotes have never won their division, but did earn home ice in the first round in 1999 and 2010.
They have forced their opponents to face elimination three times in a playoff series in 1997, 1999 and most recently in 2010.
But they have never won a playoff series.
Keith Tkachuk was captain for the first two near-series wins but since 2003, Shane Doan has been captain. He gets the nod here not because he was the better player of the two—that distinction is probably Tkachuk's—but because he has been with the team the entire time. He deserves better.
Their failures are not on his play (738 points in 1,119 games, plus-19 in 39 playoff games) or his leadership (545 points in 630 games as captain and seven in seven playoff games). Rather, they lie entirely with Gary Bettman's obsession over expanding to non-traditional markets.
The Coyotes have never taken root, have had ownership and arena issues, and have to practically give many of their tickets away. For that reason, they have never been able to put a good enough team around Doan to win meaningful games, and it is a testament of his leadership that they reach the playoffs without that supporting cast.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Mario Lemieux
The Pittsburgh Penguins began as a franchise the same year as their rival Philadelphia Flyers, in 1967. They earned their first Stanley Cup 17 years later, but then also won back-to-back titles.
The difference is they won one more in 2009. That gives them two Cup-winning captains to choose from, Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux.
Still no contest.
Not for one of those Crosby-hating, tired, "cry-baby" accusations that come from the eastern part of the state. Crosby is not just a marketed star, but one of the top players in the league. He is no mere scorer either, but a capable, two-way player who can genuinely lead his team.
But his body of work does not even come close to Mario's. We cannot be sure how long Crosby will play now that he has a history of a severe concussion. If his career is cut short, it is possible he will not be a Hall of Fame player.
Lemieux is already there, and was still a great player when he came back after getting that honour. He is the franchise's leader in games (915), goals (690) and assists (1,033) while also scoring 172 points in 107 playoff games.
The 10-time All-Star has three Hart Trophies, six Ross Trophies and won the Conn Smythe both years the Pens won the Cup under his leadership.
St. Louis Blues: Al Arbour
Note: "St. Louis" belongs in front of "San Jose" because no matter that it is abbreviated, the word "saint" is earlier alphabetically. Interestingly, this would not be the case using the California city's English name, Saint Joseph...okay, that was not at all interesting.
For a long time, the St. Louis Blues were perennial contenders. They made the playoffs in nine of the first 12 seasons in the league and then for 25 straight ending in 2006. They have not won a playoff game since the lockout, qualifying only once before being swept by the Vancouver Canucks.
However, in all those years of contention, they have won only 23 series in 34 appearances. Five times they won two series—from their inaugural season in 1967-1968 through the 1969-1970 season and again in 1985-1986 and 2000-2001.
The year they won the most playoff games (10) was 1986, when Brian Sutter was the team captain. He certainly is qualified in on-ice production, garnering 636 points (and 1,786 penalty minutes) in 779 games over 12 seasons. He led his teams to three division titles.
The two-year run when the team was most successful was 1999-2001, when they won the President's Trophy before being knocked out in the first round, then came back to make the conference finals before falling in five games. Chris Pronger was the captain for two season before and after that run, but had issues with maturity during that time that makes his selection tenuous.
The player who deserves the most credit is Al Arbour. The captain during the franchise's first three seasons, it is a testament to leadership that he was able to bring the team together to make the Stanley Cup Finals all three times (at that time, the playoffs were three rounds).
That they lost all 12 finals games against the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins is not a reflection on him. He was nowhere near the player fellow defencemen Sutter and Pronger were (70 points in 636 games and only 23 in 231 with the Blues), but the accomplishment of the team in its infancy is too great to ignore.
San Jose Sharks: Patrick Marleau
Patrick Marleau was much-maligned as a captain of the San Jose Sharks. There are several reasons for that, but many are off the mark.
The team had several disappointing playoff performances, and Marleau had a few himself. But the reality is the Sharks have only lost two playoff series to teams they were better than—in 2008 to the Dallas Stars and 2009 to the Anaheim Ducks.
Marleau was captain both seasons, and was not very vocal nor ever called out his team. though he has been called out for a lack of passion by his former coach and former teammate Jeremy Roenick. He needed to be removed for posting just 11 points in those 19 playoff games to shake up the team.
But Marleau has led the Sharks in total points or goals in five out of eight postseasons, and he is the franchise leader in games, goals and currently even assists. He was captain during the team's deepest playoff run (Game 6 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals), its President's Trophy and three of its six division titles.
Joe Thornton was captain of last year's team that made it to Game 5 of the conference finals. Rob Blake wore the "C" the year before when they were swept from that round.
Blake and probably even Thornton are better players all-time. But Blake was at the end of his career and an average defenceman by the time he held the post, and Thornton has not proven enough to be placed ahead of the player who most epitomizes this franchise.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Dave Andreychuk
Another pretty easy call.
The Tampa Bay Lightning has been around for just over a decade, and has had only one Stanley Cup. Dave Andreychuk was the captain when they hoisted the hardest trophy to win in 2004.
But for those outside the Lightning fan base, many do not understand how much he really meant to this franchise in its formative years. This was made clear while researching the Top 10 Free Agent Acquisitions of the Millennium and earned him top billing, as spelled out through the link.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Ted Kennedy
The Toronto Maple Leafs have had some interesting names among the captains who led the team to the Stanley Cup title since being founded in 1917.
Would Hap Day have been nicknamed The Fonz if he had been captain five decades later? How much would Syl Apps cost to add to your iPhone? Would Ted Kennedy have campaigned for the President's Trophy if it had been around? Did George Armstrong like custard?
Since these captains accounted for 10 of the team's 13 titles (Bob Davidson won in 1945, and there was no captain when they were champions in their inaugural season or in 1922), the winner almost has to be taken from this list. Because Day had only one title, he is the first to be eliminated from it.
Syl Apps had three Cups (1942, 1947 and 1948), but never had to play more than 55 games and still lasted only 12 years. He was only captain for four of them.
And then there were two.
Armstrong won four Cups (1962-1964 and 1967) to Kennedy's two (1949, 1951). But Kennedy won his titles in his first three seasons at the post while Armstrong waited until his fourth. Kennedy's career was shorter, but he produced more (560 points in 696 games plus 60 in 78 in the playoffs) than Armstrong (713 in 1,188 and 60 in 110).
Besides, where was I going to get a slideshow picture of George Armstrong Custer for the play on names?
Vancouver Canucks: Stan Smyl
The Vancouver Canucks have had 13 champions in their 40 previous seasons. Three of them have conference championships: Stan Smyl (1982), Trevor Linden (1994) and Henrik Sedin (2011).
Of the three, Henrik Sedin is probably the most talented. He has had a 112-point season, won the Hart Trophy and scored at least 75 points in every season since the lockout. He is also the only captain to force an opposing team to face elimination in the Stanley Cup Finals twice.
But he is also the only one to fail twice. And he did it with the most talented team.
While the character issues the Canucks displayed in the playoffs last season cannot all be attributed to his leadership, he cannot get as much credit for that aspect of his game as the other two captains to play in the Cup Finals.
The only other Canucks captain to lead his team to within one game of a title was Linden. His Canucks fell behind 3-1 before forcing a Game 7, only to lose to Mark Messier's New York Rangers riding the previous round's guarantee.
The comeback alone was an indicator of his leadership that made him captain for more than seven seasons. And while he may not have been Sedin on the ice, his 867 points in 1,382 games plus 99 more in 124 playoff games is solid production, and he had grit, too.
But what Smyl did on the leadership scale was remarkable.
He took over as captain when previous leader Kevin McCarthy went down with injury during the 1982 season. With his team looking like it would miss the playoffs, they rattled off nine straight wins to end the season and 11 of the first 13 playoff games to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals despite a losing regular season record.
Sure, they were swept by the New York Islanders, but they were in the middle of their four consecutive titles. Smyl was a leader on the ice, too, with 18 points in 17 playoff games.
Had his career or even stint as captain been short or relatively unproductive, this would not be enough to vault him over great players like Linden and Sedin. But he was captain for the next eight seasons and scored 673 points over a career total of 896 games and 33 more in 41 playoff games, all with Vancouver.
Washington Capitals: Dale Hunter
The Washington Capitals have been in the league since 1974. After not qualifying for the playoff in their first eight seasons, they began to have their first successful era.
In 1983, they lost their first playoff series against the New York Islanders. The next season, they won their first playoff series before losing the second of three straight playoff series to that dynasty.
They finally beat them the next season, but lost to the other team from New York before going back to being Islanders victims the following season. Then to change things up, the next year their loss was to the New Jersey Devils.
Every die-hard, middle-aged Caps fan must detest the whole New York metro area. But in 1988-1989, they appeared ready to get over the hump, winning their first division title.
A disappointing first round loss to the only team they had beaten twice before, the Philadelphia Flyers, proved to be a learning moment for them. Or maybe it was revenge on the New York area, as they bounced both the Devils and Rangers with only three losses.
However, they were swept by the Boston Bruins and won only two series in the seven seasons that followed. Rod Langway was captain of the first 11 playoff series, and gave way to Kevin Hatcher for a season before Dale Hunter took the reins in the 1994-1995 season.
After not qualifying for the playoffs in 1997, Hunter was captain of the team that went as deep as the franchise has ever gone. They had 12 wins to only five losses before getting swept by the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.
During Hunter's time as captain, they were 3-3 in series and 17-17 overall in the playoffs. They failed to qualify for the playoffs in five of the next eight seasons (the first of which was his final as captain) and never made it past Game 6 of the first round until the lockout was two years behind them.
Chris Clark took over as captain in 2007 and gave way to Alxander Ovechkin in 2010. While the Caps won the President's Trophy under their guidance, they never won more than one series or finished above .500 in the playoffs under either.
This leaves Hunter and Langway as the only logical choices for all-time captain. Both were good players, but while Langway had to lead a previously unsuccessful franchise forward, only Hunter's teams had any real success—it is a reason the Caps just hired him to take over for coach Bruce Boudreau this week.
Hunter was a tough, hard-nosed player who was also productive. In 1,407 career games, he scored 1,020 points, including 556 in 872 over 12 seasons as a Cap. He also put up 118 points in 186 playoff games, 72 of which were in 100 games as a Cap.
Winnipeg Jets: Scott Mellanby
This version of the Winnipeg Jets was the Atlanta Thrashers from its inception in 1999 through last season. It is from there the team gets its captain, since they have yet to prove anything in their current location.
Of course, they proved very little in their old one. Whether this was the cause or the effect of a lack of fan support that prompted their relocation is a matter for another debate.
The bottom line is this franchise has one division title and no other playoff appearances. They were swept from that postseason (2007), but it still remains as the obvious high point of their existence.
The captain at that time was Scott Mellanby. While he may be the weakest captain on the all-time list, he was a solid player and worthy captain, even if not so much by the time he was with Atlanta.
The ex-Wisconsin Badger (under Jeff Sauer) played 1431 games over his 21-year NHL career, scoring 840 points plus 53 in 134 playoff games. In his last two NHL seasons as captain of the Thrashers, he played 140 games and scored 46 points.
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