Ranking the 5 Greatest Captains in Montreal Canadiens History

Ryan SzporerContributor IIISeptember 5, 2013

Ranking the 5 Greatest Captains in Montreal Canadiens History

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    There have been 28 captains in the history of the Montreal Canadiens, a franchise oftentimes considered synonymous with greatness. As such, it’s kind of hard to pare those down to the five greatest to ever wear the "C", as every single one—to a certain extent—has to be great by definition.

    To put it in perspective, there have been seven different team captains since the 1993 Stanley Cup, including such notables as Kirk Muller, Pierre Turgeon and Saku Koivu. However, how can any of those otherwise prototypical leaders possibly place ahead of Hockey Hall of Famers who have actually won a Stanley Cup?

    While a championship victory is definitely not a prerequisite to an appearance in the top five, it definitely doesn’t hurt. Taking into account Stanley Cups won, playoff appearances, seasons served as captain and overall performance, here are the five greatest captains in Montreal Canadiens history.

5) Bob Gainey

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    Named captain: Prior to the 1981-82 season

    Number of seasons as captain: 8

    Number of playoff appearances: 8

    Number of Stanley Cups: 1

    When you’re known as "Le Capitaine", you have to at the very least be acknowledged in a discussion on this very topic. Nickname or not, Bob Gainey earned this spot on the list.

    Arguably the inspiration for the Frank J. Selke Trophy (apart from the former general manager of the Habs of the same name), Gainey captured the award during its first four years in existence as the league’s best defensive forward.

    His final one led into his tenure as Habs captain prior to the 1981-82 season, when he was honored with the "C" over such in-their-prime, flashier options as Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson. Gainey clearly was not the team’s best player, but he was the best choice.

    Gainey went a perfect eight for eight, with as many playoff appearances as seasons served as captain along with three 100-point seasons and one Stanley Cup (1985-86) in the process.

    As a result, Gainey was clearly a better player than general manager with the Habs. While in retrospect it can be easily argued Gainey was actually a pretty bad GM, the above statement is true mostly due to his greatness as a player (and captain).

4) Yvan Cournoyer

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    Named captain: Prior to the 1975-76 season

    Number of seasons as captain: 4

    Number of playoff appearances: 4

    Number of Stanley Cups: 4

    Whereas Gainey went eight for eight in terms of playoff appearances over seasons as captain, Yvan Cournoyer was even more perfect. Capturing four Stanley Cups in his four seasons as captain—an amazing 10 overall—Cournoyer helped set a golden standard that has not since been matched.*

    Captaining some of the greatest teams in NHL history in the 1976-77 and 1977-78 Habs, Cournoyer obviously had it relatively easy.

    Proof of that came during the 1977 postseason, the entirety of which Cournoyer missed due to back surgery. The best team ever assembled (earning a record 132 regular season points) still cut through the competition like butter without him, losing just two games en route to the Stanley Cup.

    Nevertheless, it’s hard not to give credit where credit is due. After all, that 1976-77 team boasted the likes of Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire and Pete Mahovlich—just for starters.

    Like Gainey (also on the team), Cournoyer, especially in that latter stage of his career, definitely wasn’t the Habs’ best player, but he was still a future Hall of Famer. Granted, he was one of many, but not just for his scoring ability.

    After a full season played in 1977-78, he played just 15 games in 1978-79, his last before retiring. Again, the Habs won it all without him playing during the playoffs, but, while the Roadrunner couldn’t outrun his health issues any longer, he left the game trailing only Lafleur, Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau on the team’s all-time goal-scoring list.

    Not exactly bad company to keep.

    *Denis Potvin helped lead the New York Islanders to four straight Cups from 1979-83, but he acted as team captain from 1979-87, thus falling well short of the four-for-four, perfect standard described above. It’s an admitted technicality and not meant in any way to diminish the significance of Potvin’s accomplishment.

3) Newsy Lalonde

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    First Named captain: For the 1910-11 season

    Number of seasons as captain: 8

    Number of playoff appearances: 3

    Number of Stanley Cups: 0

    As fast as the Roadrunner was, Newsy Lalonde was arguably the original Flying Frenchman, playing on the first-ever Habs team in 1909-10 and scoring 328 points (266 goals) in 200 career games with the Habs.

    Lalonde makes this list in part for his scoring ability and in part for being named captain of the team on a yet-to-be-matched three separate occasions: for the 1910-11 and 1912-13 seasons (playing for the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in between) and from 1916-22.

    In fact, only on two other occasions did players ever even get to wear the "C" twice: Sylvio Mantha, from 1926-32 and 1933-36, and Jack Laviolette, the first captain in team history in 1909-10 who regained the "C" in 1911-12. And, no disrespect to the latter, but Laviolette only regained it in 1911-12 because Lalonde left for Vancouver.

    While Lalonde admittedly failed to win a Stanley Cup as captain, he did help the Habs win its first ever in 1915-16 as player-coach, setting the stage for his third tour of duty as the official leader of the team.

2) Maurice Richard

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    Named captain: Prior to the 1956-57 season

    Number of seasons: 4

    Number of playoff appearances: 4

    Number of Stanley Cups: 4

    As mentioned previously, Cournoyer helped set a standard that will likely never be matched by winning four straight Stanley Cups in his four years as captain. However, he was taking a cue straight out of Maurice Richard’s playbook in so doing.

    Taking over the captaincy for Emile Bouchard, who led the Habs to the Stanley Cup in 1955-56, Richard was named captain prior to the following season. He promptly helped the franchise set a league record with four more championships in a row and five overall.

    Like Cournoyer, Richard’s play obviously was not at the same level it was during his prime by the very end. Richard was able, however, to play in all eight of the team’s playoff games in 1959-60 as the Habs swept the competition en route to that fifth consecutive championship.

    Little can be said at this point about Richard that hasn’t been said before. Still, let it be said yet again a different way: Richard wasn’t just a leader, he was a winner. More importantly (oddly enough), he was a competitor.

1) Jean Beliveau

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    Named captain: Prior the 1961-62 season

    Number of seasons: 10

    Number of playoff appearances: 9

    Number of Stanley Cups: 5

    Jean Beliveau may be considered by at least a few fans to be a controversial choice to take the No. 1 spot here over Richard, but this selection is actually pretty cut and dry. Richard may be the most iconic Hab, Beliveau, however, is the archetypal captain, and not just among Habs, to have worn the "C."

    Cournoyer and Richard each won four Stanley Cups as a captain. Beliveau won five. Sure, Beliveau had more seasons to win, serving as captain for 10 years—but that really shouldn’t be held against the man. If anything, it further proves the point that he was the best of the best.

    Granted, Saku Koivu also served as captain for 10 years (nine seasons with the 2004-05 lockout) and he doesn’t even come close to Beliveau in terms of accomplishments when serving as Habs captain. That’s not meant as an insult to Koivu, though.

    It’s actually the highest of compliments to Beliveau that Koivu, one of the premier class acts and leaders in franchise history, doesn’t even make this list while he places first.

    Whereas Richard leaned on younger talents in the latter stages of his captaincy (like Beliveau, who was entering his prime then), Beliveau continued to lead by example until the end, not just on the ice (and off it), but on the scoresheet as well.

    He won the Hart Memorial Trophy in 1963-64 as well as the first-ever Conn Smythe Memorial Trophy in 1964-65. Perhaps most impressively, his final season in 1970-71 saw him not just lead the team to his fifth Stanley Cup as captain (10 as a player and a record 17 overall),but led them to scoring with 76 points in 70 games. He also chipped in 22 in 20 postseason contests, going on 40 years of age, no less.

    The bottom line is Beliveau commanded respect as a player and earned it as a captain—and person, even being awarded admission into Order of Canada in 1998, a fitting accomplishment for a Canadien and a national treasure through and through.

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