The 25 Best Leaders in NHL History

Alison MyersCorrespondent IDecember 2, 2011

The 25 Best Leaders in NHL History

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    Throughout the NHL's storied history, a select group of players have been called upon to hold a very special honor: wearing the captain's "C" on the chest of their jersey.

    These players have a big responsibility. They need to set a good example for their teammates on and off the ice, act as a motivator, mentor younger players and represent their team in the community. They also need to talk to the referees about decisions during certain parts of the game.

    When a player is named captain, it is a chance to change his legacy with his team and the league, for better or for worse.

    The 25 players in this slideshow are some of the greatest leaders to ever play the game. They have won division titles and Stanley Cup championships, taken home individual trophies and had their numbers raised to the rafters.

    There are many great players featured here, so ranking was no easy feat. I decided to do this slideshow by taking into account what these players accomplished when they were captain rather than looking at their entire career. I also considered championships won and other contributions to their teams, as well as international play.

    Most of the players on this list are retired, but a few are still playing today.

    Here are the 25 best leaders in NHL history.

25. Doug Weight

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    Weight was the captain of the Edmonton Oilers from 1999 through 2001. In both his seasons as captain, the Oilers went to the playoffs, but lost in the Western Conference Quarterfinals each time.

    In 2001, he was named to the NHL All-Star Game while on his way to a 90-point season.

    He later took over the Islanders captaincy before the 2009-10 season, as previous captain Bill Guerin had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, Weight was limited to 54 games in two seasons because of injuries, and he retired at the end of last year.

    He has stayed in the Islanders organization as an assistant coach and assistant to the general manager.

24. Shane Doan

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    Doan is currently the captain of the Phoenix Coyotes, a position he's held since the 2003-04 season.

    He made the NHL All-Star Game in 2004 en route to a season where he scored 27 goals and 68 points. He continued to improve in the following seasons, as he hit 30 goals for the first time in his career in the 2005-06 season. In 2008, he set a career high in points with 78.

    Doan also made the 2009 All-Star Game and finished the year with 31 goals and 73 points.

    The Coyotes have made the playoffs the last two seasons, but have lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Quarterfinals each time.

    In 2010, he was awarded the King Clancy Trophy, which goes to the player who best displays leadership qualities on and off the ice and also makes contributions to the community.

    Although the Coyotes are not a highly successful franchise, Doan deserves to be on this list for his continued loyalty to the organization and his ability to keep up a high level of play while wearing the "C."

23. Mike Modano

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    Modano was the Stars captain from 2003 through 2006, but he served as an alternate captain from 1995 to the 2002-03 season.

    As an alternate captain, Modano helped the Stars to their first Stanley Cup in 1999, posting 23 points in 23 playoff games. He matched those totals in the 2000 playoffs, but Dallas fell to the New Jersey Devils in the finals.

    He was captain of the Western Conference team at the 2003 NHL All-Star Game and had 85 points in 79 games that season.

    Upon being named captain, the Stars made the playoffs both seasons he was the leader. They even won the Pacific Division in 2006 with a record of 53-23-6.

    In addition, Modano helped Team USA win a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics, putting up six assists in the tournament.

22. Phil Esposito

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    Esposito was the New York Rangers captain from 1975-1978. In that time, he had two 30-goal seasons, hitting the milestone in 1977 (34 goals) and 1978 (38 goals). He was named to the NHL All-Star Game in both of those seasons, finishing 1977 with 80 points and 1978 with 81 points.

    The Rangers made the playoffs in 1978, but lost in the preliminary round to the Buffao Sabres.

    However, that season, Esposito was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy, a hockey award that goes to an individual for outstanding contributions to USA hockey.

    He was also the captain of Team Canada at the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union, posting 13 points in eight games as Canada posted a stunning series defeat over the Soviets.

21. Gordie Howe

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    "Mr. Hockey" was captain of the Detroit Red Wings from 1958 to 1962.

    In that time, the Wings made the playoffs in 1960 and 1961, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1961 Stanley Cup Finals.

    Howe won the Hart Trophy in 1960 with 73 points in 70 games.

20. Paul Kariya

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    Kariya served as captain of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, as they were then known, from 1996 through 2003. He took over the captaincy in 1996 after serving as an alternate captain during the 1995-96 season. That year, he had 108 points and went to the NHL All-Star Game.

    In his first year as captain, he went to the All-Star Game on his way to scoring 99 points in 69 games and went to the event every year he was captain. He also helped the Ducks to their first playoff appearance, where they fell to the Red Wings in the Western Conference Semifinals.

    After the season, he won the Lady Byng Trophy, awarded to the most sportsmanlike player in the NHL.

    In 1999, he was nominated for the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance and led Anaheim to another playoff appearance. They lost again to the Red Wings, however, this time in the conference quarterfinals.

    Kariya was the captain when the Ducks went to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 2003. They lost to the New Jersey Devils in seven games, but Kariya finished the postseason with 12 points in 21 games.

19. Markus Naslund

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    Naslund was named the captain of the Vancouver Canucks before the 2000-01 season and held the title until 2008. He was the first European-born captain in team history. 

    He went to three consecutive All-Star Games in his first three years as captain from 2001 to 2003. He had 41 goals in 2001 despite missing the second half of the year with a broken leg, while in 2002, he had 40 goals and 90 points.

    In 2003, he received the Lester B. Pearson Award, which is given to the most oustanding regular season NHL player and is voted on by the NHL Players Association. He was also a finalist for the Hart Trophy, as he finished the year with 48 goals and 104 points.

    In 2004, he was the captain of the Western Conference team at the All-Star Game on his way to an 84-point season.

    The Canucks won two division titles under his leadership, finishing with a record of 43-24-10-5 and 101 points in 2004, and posting a 49-26-7 record and 105 points in 207.They went to the Stanley Cup Playoffs from 2001 through 2004 and in 2007, but did not make it any further than the Western Conference Semifinals.

18. Mats Sundin

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    Sundin was named the first European captain in Toronto Maple Leafs history before the 1997-98 season and held the role until 2008. He is also the longest serving non-North American born captain in team history.

    He was the Leafs leading scorer in five years of his captaincy, sitting atop the scoring chart from 1997 through 2002. As a result, he was named to seven straight All-Star Games (he did not play in the 2003 event, however). In that timespan, he had five 70-point seasons and two 80-point seasons, topping out at 83 points in 1998-99.

    The Leafs made the playoffs six times with Sundin as their captain. They won the Northeast Division title in 2000 with a record of 45-27-7-3 for 100 points and went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1999 and 2002.

    He also won the Mark Messier Leadership Award in 2008, which is given to the player who shows to be a superior leader in hockey and is a contributor to their community.

    In international competition, he was the captain of Team Sweden in various tournaments. He was the captain when Sweden won gold at the 2006 Olympics and posted eight points in eight tournament games.

    The Maple Leafs will retire his No. 13 uniform in February.

17. Trevor Linden

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    Linden was first given the captaincy in Vancouver in 1990-91 on a rotating basis, but he then took over sole responsibility in the 1991-92 season. That season, he led the Canucks to the Smythe Division title while posting 75 points and earning a trip to the NHL All-Star Game. The Canucks set a franchise record with 96 points in a season.

    Vancouver won their second division title under Linden's leadership in 1993, as they had a 46-29-9 record for 101 points.

    In 1994, he led the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals against the New York Rangers. The Canucks nearly fought back from a 3-1 series deficit, but Mark Messier scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 to give the Rangers their first Stanley Cup in 42 years. However, Linden still did well, as he had 12 goals and 25 points in that postseason.

    During his career, he also received the King Clancy Trophy and the NHL Foundation Player Award. He was also an alternate captain in his second stint with the Canucks, and his No. 16 jersey was retired by the organization.

16. Ray Bourque

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    Bourque was captain of the Boston Bruins from 1985 through 2000 to be the longest-tenured captain in franchise history. From 1985 through 1988, he split the captaincy with Rick Middleton, but became the sole captain in 1988-89.

    Through his captaincy, he won five Norris Trophies, including twice in back-to-back seasons (1987 and 1988, followed by 1990 and 1991). His best statistical season in that time was in 1986-87, when he had 95 points. He also played in every NHL All-Star Game that was held throughout his career, and he was named the MVP of the 1996 contest held in Boston.

    Bourque also led the Bruins to the playoffs every year, helping to continue a streak of 29 straight postseason appearances, which lasted until 1996. The Bruins were in the Stanley Cup Finals twice under Bourque's leadership, in 1988 and 1990, but lost to the dynasty Edmonton Oilers both times.

    Boston captured three division titles in the Bourque era in 1990, 1991 and 1993. In 1990, they had 46 wins.

    In addition, he won the King Clancy Trophy in 1992.

    Although Bourque was honored as a member of the Colorado Avalanche, he will always be associated with the Boston franchise.

15. Jonathan Toews

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    Toews is the youngest active captain in the NHL and was 20 years old when he was named Blackhawks captain prior to the 2008-09 season. He was an alternate captain in 2007-08.

    In his first year wearing the "C," Toews led the Hawks to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, where they lost to the Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals. He had 13 points in 17 playoff games after putting up 69 points in the regular season and being named to the NHL All-Star Game.

    The next year, Toews had 68 points and also shined at the Olympics in Vancouver. He scored eight points in seven games and was named the best forward of the tournament.

    In the 2010 playoffs, he became the youngest member of the Triple Gold Club when he helped the Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. He also won the Conn Smythe Trophy, as he had 29 points in 23 playoff games.

    He was named a starter in the 2011 All-Star Game and finished the season with 76 points and a plus-20 rating. The Hawks made the playoffs once again and nearly overcame a 3-0 series deficit in the quarterfinals to defeat the Canucks, but lost in overtime of Game 7.

    Toews currently has 25 points and is fourth in the NHL with 13 goals scored.

14. Sidney Crosby

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    Crosby had previously been offered the Penguins captaincy during the 2006-07 season, when he was acting as an alternate captain, but he declined. While wearing the "A," he won the Lester B. Pearson Award, the Art Ross Trophy and the Hart Trophy after posting a 120-point season.

    However, he felt more comfortable accepting the "C" prior to the 2007-08 campaign, and he has held it ever since.

    He has led the Pens to the playoffs each year of his captaincy, including a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2008 and a championship in 2009. He had 31 points in 24 playoff games as the Pens won their third Stanley Cup.

    In 2010, Crosby scored the gold medal-winning goal for Team Canada in the Olympics and finished the tournament with seven points in seven games. He had 109 points for the Penguins as they went to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, but they fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

    Last year, he still led the Penguins in scoring with 66 points despite missing the last 41 games of the season with a concussion.

    Crosby made his return to the lineup on November 21 against the New York Islanders, and he is quickly coming back to form, as he has 11 points in his first six games.

13. Nicklas Lidstrom

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    When Lidstrom was named captain of the Detroit Red Wings in 2006, he had some big shoes to fill, as he was taking over for longtime captain Steve Yzerman, who had retired.

    However, Lidstrom has not disappointed in his tenure as captain. He had already earned three Stanley Cups as a Wings alternate captain, and the success has kept coming.

    The Wings went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, defeating the Penguins to win their second Cup in six years in 2008. He had 13 points and a plus-eight rating in 22 playoff games in that championship season. 

    Although the Wings lost to the Pens in a 2009 rematch, Lidstrom continued to produce, posting 16 points and a plus-11 through 21 postseason games. 

    He has won three of his seven Norris Trophies as captain of the Wings (2007, 2008 and 2011), and in 2010, he became the oldest NHL player to have a hat trick when he posted the first of his career in a December game against the St. Louis Blues.

    Since being named captain, he has been to every NHL All-Star Game and was captain of the 2011 event on his way to a 62-point campaign.

    He has also led Sweden in international competition, including at the 2010 Olympics.

    Lidstrom has been a Red Wing his entire career and currently holds the record for most games played by a European born and trained NHL player, as he has played 1,517 games to date.

12. Scott Niedermayer

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    Niedermayer was captain of the Ducks twice in his career, holding the position from 2005 to 2007 and again from 2008 through 2010.

    He led the Ducks to the Western Conference Finals in the 2005-06 campaign, where they lost to the Edmonton Oilers. Despite the loss, he still had 11 points in 16 playoff games.

    But in 2007, Niedermayer helped the Ducks bounce back and win their first Stanley Cup. The Ducks defeated the Ottawa Senators in five games, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy after finishing the posteason with 11 points in 21 games.

    In 2008 and 2009, he was named to the NHL All-Star Game and got the 2008 nod despite having 25 points in just 48 games. In 2009, he bounced back to finish with 59 points.

    Niedermayer was Team Canada's captain at the 2010 Olympics as they won the gold medal, and he finished the tournament with three points in seven games.

11. Sid Abel

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    Abel was captain of the Red Wings twice in his career, as he held the title in the 1942-43 season and again from 1946 to 1952.

    The Wings went to the playoffs every year he was the captain, and they won Stanley Cups in 1943, 1950 and 1952. In 1943, he had 13 points in 10 playoff games, one of the best postseason runs of his career.

    He won the Hart Trophy in 1949 after posting 54 points in 60 games.

    Abel was head coach of the Wings for several years after he retired. Although they went to the Stanley Cup Finals four times under his leadership (1961, 1963, 1964 and 1966), they were never able to take the Cup back.

10. Scott Stevens

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    Stevens was captain of the Devils from 1992 through 2004 and was the team leader for all three of their Stanley Cup titles (1995, 2000 and 2003). He also got New Jersey to the Finals in 2001, but they fell to the Colorado Avalanche.

    He also helped the Devils to two division titles, which included a 48-win and 111-point season in 2001. They captured the division again in 2003, finishing with a record of 46-20-10 for 108 points.

    Earlier in his career, New Jersey won three straight division championships from 1997 to 1999. Their best mark during that period came in 1997-98, when they had a 48-23-11 record for 107 points.

    He was named to seven NHL All-Star Games as New Jersey's captain, including four straight from 1996 to 1999. Although he was never a flashy scorer, he had a positive plus/minus rating every year.

    In 2000, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy after posting 11 points and a plus-nine rating in 23 playoff games.

    His No. 4 jersey is retired by the Devils.

9. Joe Sakic

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    Sakic spent his entire career with the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche franchise. He first became captain in Quebec in 1992 and held the title until his retirement in 2009.

    In the Avalanche's first season in Colorado, Sakic helped them take home the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in doing so, as he finished the postseason with 18 goals and 34 points in 22 games.

    The Avs won the President's Trophy under Sakic in 1997, posting a record of 49-24-9 with 107 points. However, they lost to the Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals.

    Colorado won eight straight division titles when Sakic was captain, three as members of the Pacific Division and five in the Northwest Division. They won an additional President's Trophy in 2001, posting a record of 52-16-10-4 for 118 points.

    In 2001, after posting 54 goals and 118 points in the regular season, Sakic helped the Avs win their second Stanley Cup. He had 26 points in 21 playoff games, and his successful season included capturing the Hart Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award and the Lady Byng Trophy.

    Sakic was also named the MVP of the 2002 Winter Olympics, posting seven points in six games as Canada won the gold medal.

    His No. 19 jersey was retired by the Avalanche on opening night of the 2009-10 season.

8. Bobby Clarke

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    Clarke is one of the other players on this list to serve as a team captain twice, as he captained the Flyers from 1973 through 1979 and again from 1982 to 1984.

    When he was captain the first time, the Flyers won Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, which also started a stretch of five division titles in under 10 years. They had back-to-back 51-win seasons in 1975 and 1976 and had 118 points in 1976.

    In 1974, following his first season as captain, he won the Lester B. Pearson Award after putting up 87 points and a plus-75 rating.

    1975 and 1976 were also good years for Clarke as an individual player. He won consecutive Hart Trophies, as he had 116 points and a plus-79 in the 1975 season, and he followed that up with 119 points and a plus-83 in 1976.

    He was named to four NHL All-Star Games in 1974, 1975, 1977 and 1978. His best year out of that time period came in 1977, when he had 90 points.

    In his second stint as captain, he won the Selke Trophy in 1983, posting 85 points and a plus-37.

    He also served as Flyers general manager from 1984 to 1990 and again from 1994 to 2006. Despite resigning early in the 2006-07 season, he was named senior vice president in December 2006, a position he has held since.

7. Mario Lemieux

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    Lemieux was captain of the Penguins three times during his career, first assuming the role from 1987-1994.

    He got his reign as captain off to a strong start by winning the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy after posting 168 points.

    In 1988-89, he made history by becoming the first (and to date, only) NHL player to score five goals five different ways, accomplishing the feat in a December game against the New Jersey Devils.

    In 1991, he helped the Pens win their first Stanley Cup by defeating the Minnesota North Stars, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy after leading the NHL with 44 points in the playoffs.

    The Penguins repeated as Stanley Cup champions in 1992 as they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks. Lemieux again won the Conn Smythe Trophy after posting 34 points. This capped an outstanding regular season where he had 131 points in 64 games and once again took home the Art Ross.

    In 1993, he led the Penguins to their first President's Trophy, as they had a record of 44-27-13 for 101 points. However, in the playoffs, they lost in the division finals to the New York Islanders.

    Lemieux guided the Penguins to one more division title under his leadership. They went 49-29-4 for 102 points to capture the Northeast Division in 1996.

    His international accomplishments included leading Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics, where he had six points in five games.

    In 1999, Lemieux bought the Penguins, and in 2007, he was behind a deal that helped the team build the Consol Energy Center to stay in Pittsburgh. He remains the team's owner and chairman and is the first NHL figure to win the Stanley Cup as a player and an executive (2009).

     

6. Steve Yzerman

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    Yzerman is the longest-tenured captain in Red Wings and NHL history, as he was their leader from 1986 through 2006.

    He won the Lester B. Pearson Award in 1989 and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy after posting 155 points in 80 games.

    In 1995, he had his first taste of the Stanley Cup Finals, and although he had 12 points in 15 playoff games, the Wings were swept by the New Jersey Devils. However, he helped the Wings earn the President's Trophy for the first time during his captaincy, as the team had a record of 33-11-4 for 70 points in a lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.

    The Wings defeated the Flyers in 1997 to give Yzerman his first Stanley Cup. In 1998, they swept the Washington Capitals to repeat as champions, and he was awarded the Conn Smythe after posting 24 points in 22 playoff games.

    Detroit won five additional Presidents' Trophies when Yzerman was captain (1996, 2002, 2004 and 2006).

    In 2008, he won another Stanley Cup as the Red Wings vice president and alternate governor.

    He was the executive director for the 2010 Canadian team that won gold at the Winter Olympics. His team boasted players such as Sidney Crosby, Scott Niedermayer and Roberto Luongo.

    His No. 19 is retired by the Wings, and he is currently the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last year, the Lightning had an incredible turnaround behind Yzerman and new head coach Guy Boucher, going to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

5. Maurice Richard

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    "The Rocket" served as the Montreal Canadiens captain from 1956 to 1950 and helped the Habs win four straight Stanley Cups. His best individual playoff run came in 1958, when he had 18 goals, including a hat trick.

    He also played in three straight NHL All-Star Games from 1957-1959 when serving as team captain. His best year in that period was in 1957, posting 62 points in 63 games.

4. Denis Potvin

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    Potvin was captain of the New York Islanders from 1979 to 1987, so he led the 1980s Islanders dynasty to four Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. The team never missed the playoffs under his leadership, and he spent his whole career on Long Island.

    In addition to the four Cups, the Islanders won Patrick Division titles in 1981, 1982 and 1984. Their best record was in 1982, when they had a record of 54-16-10 for 118 points and also won the Presidents' Trophy.

    It was the second year in a row they finished first overall in the league, as they had a record of 48-18-14 in 1981 for 110 points.

3. Wayne Gretzky

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    "The Great One" was captain of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty from 1983 to 1988 as the team won four Stanley Cups in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988. They also won four Smythe Division titles from 1984 through 1987, which included a 57-win season in 1983-84.

    Gretzky won the Conn Smythe Trophy twice in Edmonton, finishing the playoffs with 47 points in 1985 and 43 points in 1988.

    He took home four straight Hart Trophies from 1984 to 1987 and had 200-point seasons every year from 1984 to 1986. He set NHL records in 1986 with 163 assists and 215 points.

    Upon being traded to the Los Angeles Kings before the 1989-90 season, he took the captaincy until 1996. As captain, the Kings won the 1991 Smythe Division title, posting a record of 46-24-10 for 102 points. They also went to the playoffs for four straight years from 1990 to 1993, making the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993. However, they lost to the Canadiens in five games.

    Gretzky also served as captain of the St. Louis Blues for part of the 1995-96 season. The Blues went to the Western Conference Semifinals that year, but lost to the Detroit Red Wings.

    His No. 99 is retired by every jersey in the NHL, and he is the league's all-time leading scorer.

2. Jean Beliveau

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    Beliveau served as captain of the Canadiens from 1961 to 1971 and won five Cups as team captain (1965, 1966, 1968, 1969 and 1971). In 1965, he became the first player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy after posting 16 points in 13 playoff games as the Canadiens defeated the Blackhawks to win the Cup.

    Under his leadership, the Habs won first overall in the league in 1962 (42-14-14 record), 1964 (36-21-13 record) and 1966 (41-21-8 record). They won the East Division in 1968 (42-22-10 record) and 1969 (46-14-11) as well.

    He also took home the Hart Trophy in 1964 after posting 78 points in 80 games and won seven Cups as a Montreal executive (1973, 1976 through 1979, 1986 and 1993).

    Believeau is the longest-serving captain in the Habs extensive history.

1. Mark Messier

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    When we're talking about the only player in the history of any sport—not just the NHL—to captain two different teams to a championship, there is no one else that can be No. 1 on this list besides Mark Messier.

    Messier was the captain of the 1990 Edmonton Oilers team that won their fifth Stanley Cup, defeating the Boston Bruins to do so. He had 31 points in 22 playoff games after a regular season which saw him take home the Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award after posting 129 points and a plus-19 rating.

    While he was the Oilers captain, the team went to the playoffs in each of the three seasons he wore the "C."

    Messier moved on to the New York Rangers in 1991 and was immediately given the captaincy. In 1994, he scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals as the Rangers won their first title in over 40 years. He finished the postseason with 30 points and a plus-14 rating.

    The Blueshirts made the playoffs five times in six seasons while he was captain, which included a Patrick Division title and a President's Trophy in 1991-92. That year, the Rangers had a record of 50-25-5 for 105 points.

    He also served as captain of the Vancouver Canucks from 1997-2000, but the Canucks did not make the playoffs in that stretch.

    He returned to New York before the 2000-01 season and was again captain until 2004, but the Rangers could not recapture their 1990s success and failed to make the postseason in his second stop there. He retired prior to the start of the 2005-06 season.

    The Mark Messier Leadership Award was created by the NHL in 2006 to honor the player who is their team's most valuable leader who sets a good example based on his on-ice performance and off-ice actions.

    In addition, his No. 11 is retired by both the Oilers and the Rangers.

    He is currently working in the Rangers front office as special assistant to the president and general manager.