Of all the captaincy decisions made ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, the Vancouver Canucks’ choice to slap the ‘C’ on the chest of Bo Horvat is the one that came with the least surprise.
For a few seasons now, even before the departure of Henrik Sedin following the 2017-18 campaign, it had been obvious that Horvat was being groomed for the job and all signs pointed in the direction of the 24-year-old, who was the ninth-overall pick in 2013, taking on the captaincy. In fact, it appeared to be such a no-brainer that Horvat was the next captain of the Canucks that some assumed he would wear the letter last season. Not the case, as he was handed an ‘A’ for the first time in what was, looking back, something of a transition year for the franchise. But Wednesday night in Vancouver, arguably the worst-kept leadership secret in the entire league was confirmed when Horvat skated to center to receive his freshly stitched duds from Sedin, a symbolic passing of the torch to kick of the Canucks’ home opener.
There are a number of reasons Horvat was the right choice, of course, but it’s his embodiment of the do-everything – and do-everything-right – player that put his bid for the captaincy over the top. While not the flashiest nor the highest scorer, titles that likely both go to relative newcomer Elias Pettersson, Horvat is the workhorse in Vancouver. He’s a two-way pivot, a responsible defender and he’s no slouch offensively. Last season, Horvat set a trio of career-bests with 27 goals, 34 assists and 61 points. He also was leaned on more heavily than ever, averaging nearly 21 minutes per outing, which is a tribute to his reliability at both ends of the ice.
In that regard, Horvat resembles several other on-ice leaders, the Jonathan Toewses and Anze Kopitars of the captaincy fraternity. The Canucks no doubt expect Horvat to produce on the scoresheet, but some of his most important contributions don’t show up in the post-game box score. In 2018-19, Horvat was expected to skate against and shut down top opposition on a nightly basis. In a young 2019-20 season, he’s been tasked with the same role. And it’s shouldering that load that put Horvat ahead of the others who were arguably in contention for the leadership role in Vancouver.
But now that the Canucks have named a captain, the eight vacancies that existed entering the campaign have been whittled down to four. So, who will fill the open positions? And when might we see the four captain-less teams hand out the ‘C’?
Detroit Red Wings
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: this is Dylan Larkin’s captaincy. Much like Horvat, Larkin has been groomed for the job since he broke into the league and there’s been little question Larkin is next in line in Detroit. There were whispers he would be the captain as soon as Henrik Zetterberg made it official that he wouldn’t be returning to the NHL, but much like Horvat, Larkin was instead given one of the alternate captaincies in 2018-19 and it seems the Red Wings are comfortable with Larkin in that role for another campaign.
Given how rare it is that a franchise names a captain mid-season, particularly if they’ve entered the season without one, chances are we won’t see Larkin take the mantle this season. As soon as next season rolls around, though, Red Wings faithful can expect to start looking to swap out the ‘A’ on their Larkin jerseys for a ‘C’.
New York Rangers
That the Rangers are in a transition period throws a wrench into things. There are a couple of players who have been part of the leadership group on Broadway for a few seasons now, Chris Kreider and Marc Staal, but the issue is that neither are really expected to be in New York for the long haul. Kreider is a pending free agent and there are questions about whether he’ll be deadline trade fodder, while Staal is entering into the final two seasons of a six-year contract that has been a buyout candidate during each of the past few summers.
The best bet for captain on the current squad may very well be Mika Zibanejad, who was handed an ‘A’ ahead of last season and is entering his second season as part of the Rangers’ contingent of captains. He’s a consistent producer, reliable first-line pivot and he’s entering his prime. He checks a lot of boxes. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Blueshirts wait another season or two before determining who should wear the ‘C’ moving forward, even if it does ultimately end up being Zibanejad.
Only 11 of the Senators’ current roster players have contracts that run through next season. Of those players, only four were on Ottawa’s roster for the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign. And while that’s not to say no fresh face or no player with an expiring pact can be named captain, it’s a lot less likely that the Senators are going to go ahead and hand out the captaincy when it could very well be vacated by the off-season or given to someone with whom the organization isn’t really all that familiar. So, uh, the Senators’ options are limited at the moment.
However, there are two readymade young options. Thomas Chabot just committed long-term to the Senators, inking an eight-year, $64-million contract, and he’s a shining star and foundational piece on Ottawa’s blueline. Likewise, Brady Tkachuk has already established himself as an integral part of the attack and leadership is in his blood. His father, Keith, wore a letter in 15 of his 18 big-league seasons and older brother, Matthew, is an alternate with the Calgary Flames.
No matter who becomes the Senators’ next captain, though, we probably won’t see the franchise hand out the ‘C’ until at least the 2020-21 season. No need to rush it at a time when the franchise is nowhere near competing.
Vegas Golden Knights
It’s been difficult to pin down who would be the Golden Knights’ first captain for a few reasons, not the least of which is that the franchise is still incredibly young and there was uncertainty about who would remain in town long-term. We’re starting to get an idea which players are around for the long haul, though. William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault have inked long-term deals. Shea Theodore is locked in for another six seasons, as is Nate Schmidt. Former Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty is even signed up for three more campaigns after the current season.
But when it comes to getting to the bottom of the captaincy question, we may have gotten a hint when the alternates were announced for this season. The Golden Knights’ group included two pre-existing alternates, Reilly Smith and Deryk Engelland, as well as Mark Stone, who was acquired from the Senators and subsequently inked to an eight-year, $76-million extension. And that Stone is already wearing a letter seems somewhat telling.
Arguably one of the two or three best two-way players in the league, Stone has future captain written all over him. He was an alternate in each of his past two seasons in Ottawa, he’s a high scorer and his defensive prowess gives him the lead-by-example quality that coaches and GMs love. And speaking of GMs, Stone was an alternate during his junior days with the Brandon Wheat Kings. The GM and coach when Stone stepped into that role? Current Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon. Seeing Stone named the first captain in Vegas’ franchise history as soon as next season wouldn’t be surprising at all.
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