Monday marked the dawning of a new era in Montreal as the Canadiens shipped captain Max Pacioretty, an offensive leader and fixture of the organization for the better part of a decade, to the Vegas Golden Knights. And while the trade put to end months of speculation regarding Pacioretty’s future in Montreal, it sparked a brand-new debate: with the Canadiens now without a captain, who will be next to wear the ‘C’ for one of the sport’s most storied organizations?
As one would expect, Montreal hasn’t been all that forthcoming with its plans for the captaincy. Speaking at the team’s annual golf tournament earlier this week, coach Claude Julien said the Canadiens would “deal with (it) in time,” according to NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger, continuing on to say that, “You want to make the right decision when it comes to that. I think it's very important to have the right person in place.” And those sentiments were echoed by Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, who added that there’s no time frame to have a captain in place.
Given the proximity of the Pacioretty trade to the beginning of the regular season — training camp begins in mere days and meaningful games begin in less than a month — it’s likely safe to suggest that the Canadiens will remain devoid of a captain to begin the campaign, at the very least. It’s not a big leap to expect Montreal to remain without a captain for the entirety of the 2018-19 season, either. After all, the Canadiens have spent two of the past nine seasons without a captain, the first coming in 2009-10 upon Saku Koivu’s departure from the organization and second in 2014-15, which fell between Brian Gionta’s turn with the ‘C’ and Pacioretty’s time in the role.
A captain-less Canadiens shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. We’re living in the age of the vacant captaincy. More than a quarter of the league’s teams are without a captain at present, and in some cases, it’s become evident that the organizations are in no rush to fill the role. For instance, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been without a captain for two-plus seasons, since the departure of Dion Phaneuf, and are primed to enter this season without one. The Vegas Golden Knights are planning to spend their second NHL campaign without an official captain, as well, and a few other clubs could be set to enter a second season without anyone wearing the ‘C’. Chances are of the eight vacant captaincies, only one or two spots are filled this season.
However, despite no stated time frame, it feels as though the Canadiens won’t be among the teams to wait all that long to fill the void left by Pacioretty’s move out of town, if for no other reason than Montreal having at least two clear-cut options for the captaincy. And atop the shortlist, without a doubt, is Shea Weber.
What gives Weber a leg up on the captaincy is that he’s not all unfamiliar with life as an NHL captain. The 33-year-old was formerly the Nashville Predators captain for six seasons, and he’s worn an ‘A’ for the Canadiens since his arrival ahead of the 2016-17 campaign. He’s widely recognized as the kind of on- and off-ice leader that teams seek, and he’s been part of a leadership group that’s under great pressure before. At both the 2014 Olympics and 2017 World Cup of Hockey, Weber was an alternate captain on the gold medal-winning Canadian squads. He has taken teams back from the brink, too, and his work in Nashville shouldn’t be overlooked. His entire resume would appear to make him the frontrunner to be the next to don the ‘C’ for the Canadiens.
Just because Weber has served as a captain before doesn’t mean he’s prepared for life as Montreal’s captain, though. It’s a different atmosphere, a different environment, with the Canadiens. Despite the Predators’ successes during Weber’s time with the organization, the pressures are greater in Montreal, and it’s not even his leadership experience with the national team is an apt comparison for the challenges that face the face of the Canadiens.
There’s also a matter of presence and, honestly, performance. While Weber is only one season removed from a sixth-place finish in Norris Trophy voting, he’s undoubtedly set to enter the back nine of his career and stitching the ‘C’ to his sweater could come with the risk of a difficult conversation about his wearing the letter in two or three years’ time should Weber be struck with a steep decline. The possibility that Weber could suffer such a decline, too, seems to be growing with his current battle with injury. He missed more than half of the past season with a foot injury and is sidelined well into the new campaign following knee surgery. While speed has never been Weber’s game, knee injuries late in a career can take their toll, and maybe there’s more risk associated with the veteran blueliner than is ideal for the Canadiens.
It’s for those reasons, too, that some see Brendan Gallagher, not Weber, as the Canadiens’ next captain. Far be it from Montreal to surprise with their pick, either. You’ll recall the consensus opinion ahead of Pacioretty’s appointment as the captain was that P.K. Subban was destined for the captaincy. But Gallagher most certainly has the credentials worthy of wearing the ‘C’.
Though he’s only 26, Gallagher has been an alternate captain in Montreal for the past three seasons and few players inside the dressing room understand the ins and outs of playing for the Canadiens quite like he does. Granted, he won’t be the same player as Pacioretty, nor does Gallagher have the breadth of captaincy experience that Weber possesses. That said, Gallagher is the kind of heart-and-soul, lead-by-example player that teammates and coaches love. Not only that, but Gallagher is a beloved player, a fan favorite. In a market such as Montreal — and across the entire league, for that matter — that counts for something, even if it shouldn’t be the determining factor in naming a captain.
Gallagher does have qualifications beyond that, though. Last season, amidst a down year for the entire offense, Gallagher blossomed, leading the Canadiens with 31 goals and posting a career-best and team-leading 54 points. He remained the same pesky, in-your-face competitor that he had been for years prior, too. What Gallagher might have going for him most is experience in the market and a career in which some of his best years are still ahead of him. And there’s merit to Montreal naming a captain who can grow with this team and be an effective player for years to come.
The fact remains that whoever wears the ‘C’ next will be tasked with leading Montreal back to some semblance of prominence. And given the Canadiens are a franchise that was built on winning and a team so steeped in tradition, the captaincy carries all the more weight. So, be it Weber, Gallagher or otherwise, who is chosen to follow Pacioretty and become the franchise’s 30th captain will be no easy decision.