Alex Ovechkin checked off two major milestones and put his name into the history books in one fell swoop at the end of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.
When he skated to the podium to accept the Conn Smythe Trophy, he became the fourth European skater to be named the playoff MVP. And when he accepted the Stanley Cup as the Washington Capitals’ captain, Ovechkin joined Nicklas Lidstrom and Zdeno Chara in the exclusive group of European captains to lead his team to an NHL crown.
But with Ovechkin entering the history books and the ever-changing landscape of the NHL, European captains are much more common than they were in the past, chances are the group of three Europeans will grow to add a fourth sometime soon. But which European captain will be the next to hoist the Stanley Cup?
1. ROMAN JOSI, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Arguably the odds-on Stanley Cup favorite entering the 2018 post-season, the Predators were one win away from earning a berth into the Western Conference final. And if it was Nashville up against the Vegas Golden Knights instead of the Winnipeg Jets, there’s a chance the final two rounds of the post-season shake out much differently. If that were the case, it would have marked a battle between two European captains, with Josi hailing from Switzerland and Ovechkin a native of Russia.
The good news for Josi and the rest of the Predators, though, is that missing out on a Stanley Cup final berth this season doesn’t really make it feel as though Nashville’s window has slammed shut. With an incredible defensive group and a potent but well-distributed attack, the Predators have all the tools to compete in the Western Conference for the next several seasons. Nashville broke through and made their way to the final in 2017, so bowing out in the second round this past season might seem like a step backwards, but if there was smart money to be laid down on the next captain from across the pond to hoist the Cup, it’d be on Josi.
2. ANZE KOPITAR, LOS ANGELES KINGS
This is a matter of semantics in that, yes, Kopitar has won the Stanley Cup previously, but the name of the game here is for a European born captain to lead his team to a title. So, while Kopitar was fantastic in both of the Kings’ Stanley Cup runs, leading the team and league in goals and points in 2012 and then again owning the point-scoring lead in 2014, he played both of those seasons as an alternate to Dustin Brown’s captaincy. The changing of the guard didn’t come until the 2016-17 campaign, so now it’s up to Kopitar to win another Stanley Cup if he wants to join the Ovechkins, Charas and Lidstroms of hockey lore.
The bad news for Kopitar is that the Kings’ most recent forays into the playoffs haven’t gone all that well. A five-game exit in 2016 was followed by a four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden Knights this season. The good news, however, is that Los Angeles has many of the pieces a team needs to get his team to the top of the mountain. Goaltender Jonathan Quick is a stabilizing force in the crease, Drew Doughty is a Norris Trophy-caliber defender with a stable of quality defensemen around him and the offense, while not high-powered, has weapons that can score when it matters. The trick now is for Los Angeles to surround Kopitar with more depth up front that can get the Kings past their playoff woes.
3. MIKKO KOIVU, MINNESOTA WILD
Koivu comes in third on this list, but there’s a razor-thin margin between his Wild and Kopitar’s Kings. In fact, the only reason Kopitar really ranks ahead of Koivu is that the Los Angeles captain has the better part of the next decade to win his Stanley Cup, whereas the Minnesota captain is seeing time run out on his career. The 35-year-old Finn has two years remaining on his contract, and while it’s entirely possible he’s brought back by the time the 2020-21 campaign rolls around, there’s no guarantee there.
Assuming he does return and stick around until, say, his age 40 season and remains captain, that does give him five years to win the Cup in Minnesota. And there does appear to be enough talent within the Wild organization to get the job done. Prime-aged forwards such as Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund are offering up hope that this team is in good hands, and the emergence of defenseman Jared Spurgeon in recent seasons has certainly helped ensure that Ryan Suter will have himself a top-tier partner for the foreseeable future. The big issue facing Minnesota, however, is how they add even more punch up front and stability at the back with limited cap space going forward. It really feels as though Kirill Kaprizov can’t be NHL-bound soon enough for the Wild.
4. GABRIEL LANDESKOG, COLORADO AVALANCHE
Given how poor the Avalanche were for the duration of the 2016-17 campaign, the entire franchise took a gargantuan step forward in 2017-18. For them to even flirt with a post-season berth would have been unexpected, but making it into the playoffs and putting even a minor scare into the Predators was a remarkable turnaround.
That said, there remains a massive chasm between the three-spot on this list and the fourth-place Avalanche, captained by Sweden’s Gabriel Landeskog. In fact, it could safely be said that earning a spot in the playoffs this past season was somewhat of an overachievement for Colorado and that while expectations won’t be as low next season, they’re not going to be all that much higher.
In order for Landeskog to captain the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup, Colorado is going to have to do a ton of work in overhauling the defense and creating a more consistent and more potent attack. The Avalanche allowed the fifth-most shots against per game this past season and took the second fewest. Granted, the Capitals finished with fewer shots per game than the Avalanche, but there’s a vast difference between the level of talent in Washington’s forward group and Colorado’s bunch.
5. ERIK KARLSSON, OTTAWA SENATORS
Let’s go right ahead and put a giant, see-it-from-space sized asterisk on this one. Karlsson is the Senators’ captain and he’s not all that far removed from powering — and make no mistake, he was the driving force — Ottawa to within a single overtime goal of a Stanley Cup final berth. He’s also one of the very best players in the world, and if any rearguard was going to lead his team to a championship, the Senators’ Swedish scorer would be a safe bet. The thing is, though, Karlsson may not be a captain all that much longer.
Sure, for the time being, he remains the Senators’ leader, but rumors are abound that Karlsson could be on his way out of town in the not-too-distant future. And whether by trade or free agency, wherever Karlsson heads next, he likely won’t step in and automatically have the ‘C’ stitched to his sweater. He likely wouldn’t want that responsibility fresh out of the gate, either.
All that said, should he remain in Ottawa long-term, it still feels as though the Senators are further away than the others listed above. Ottawa is going through a bit of a rebuild with some top names, Karlsson included, reportedly on the trade block. If they blow up the roster, you can expect another three or four years minimum before the Senators are a real playoff threat again.
6. HENRIK ZETTERBERG, DETROIT RED WINGS
Like Kopitar, Zetterberg does already have a Stanley Cup, though he doesn’t have one to his name as the Red Wings’ captain. In 2008, when Detroit defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Stanley Cup, Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe Trophy, but he wasn’t the first player to hoist the real prize. Rather, it was Lidstrom who accepted the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman.
The unfortunate reality for Zetterberg, however, is that he’s unlikely to ever win a Stanley Cup as the Red Wings’ captain. Though he’s destined to finish his career in Detroit, the 37-year-old Swede is in the twilight of his career. He has three years remaining on his contract, sure, but every campaign comes with questions as to whether or not he’ll return. Even if he does play out the deal, though, the Red Wings are so far off from being title contenders that there’s no hope for Detroit to win a Stanley Cup before Zetterberg hangs ‘em up. Truth be told, it’s more likely Zetterberg shakes hands the Red Wings’ first No. 1 overall pick since 1986 than it is he shakes hands with Bettman before lifting the Cup.
Honorable mention: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes
Another pick worthy of an asterisk, and this time for two reasons. First, Ekman-Larsson isn’t the captain and likely won’t be until or unless he signs an extension to remain in Arizona long-term. And that brings us to point No. 2, which is that there isn’t much certainty about Ekman-Larsson’s future as a Coyote. He could stick around, he could choose to leave as a free agent or Arizona could decide to trade him in order to recoup assets. No one knows quite yet.
Here’s what we do know, though: the Swedish blueliner has been the backbone of the Arizona defense for years, and if the Coyotes are going to hit an upswing at long last, Ekman-Larsson will play a part in it. It sure would be nice to see him have some success after this many years struggling in Arizona, too.
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