In early August 2016, little more than two months after Anze Kopitar had taken over the Los Angeles Kings’ captaincy, there were still six teams who had yet to name a new on-ice leader, but as the summer wound down, that number dwindled.
In late-August, both the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets took care of their vacant captaincies. St. Louis, who had lost former captain David Backes in free agency to the Boston Bruins, pegged their top defenseman, Alex Pietrangelo, for the job, handing him the ‘C’ and asking him to take the Blues to new heights. Meanwhile, in Manitoba’s capital, the Jets were without a captain ever since Andrew Ladd’s deadline deal to the Chicago Blackhawks ahead of the 2016 post-season, but they filled the hole left by Ladd with Blake Wheeler. For Jets fans, it was a no-brainer choice, with some even chanting “Captain Wheeler” weeks earlier at an unveiling of Heritage Classic jerseys in downtown Winnipeg.
Then, in the days leading up to the season, two more captaincies fell. The first was that of the Edmonton Oilers, who made a proclamation about their faith in Connor McDavid by handing him the captaincy before he had even celebrated his 20th birthday. At 19 years and 266 days, McDavid became the youngest captain in league history, but it was hard to find anyone who disagreed with the selection.
And while Edmonton was tabbing a young gun for their on-ice leader, the Florida Panthers chose to pass over their litany of young studs and give the captaincy to veteran Derek MacKenzie. It was a bizarre choice to some, but MacKenzie, then 35, was relied upon to lead the Panthers through a tumultuous season and fared well in the role.
However, two teams, the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs, failed to name an outright captain before the season began and remained without one throughout the entire campaign. That means now, with two months before the new season is set to begin, both clubs find themselves considering handing out the captaincy once again.
They’re not the only teams doing so, however. Like the past summer, six teams in total, including the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs, are without captains, though some of those vacancies are sure to be filled before the season begins. But who takes over the vacant ‘C’s? Here are suggestions for each of the six teams:
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes’ captaincy was vacated the moment the organization decided to part ways with Shane Doan, and it didn’t take long for speculation to ramp up that the ‘C’ would be heading to Ekman-Larsson. The suggestion isn’t without warrant, either. By virtue of playing in Arizona, Ekman-Larsson may remain one of the more underrated and effective offensive defensemen in the league, and, given he’s only 26, he could be the perfect cornerstone for the franchise to build around.
Ekman-Larsson has repeatedly been among the leading scorers in Arizona, has represented the franchise at the All-Star Game and has worn an ‘A’ for the Coyotes for the past four seasons. In addition, he has two top-10 Norris Trophy finishes under his belt, including a ninth-place finish in 2016-17 despite the fact the Coyotes finished a mile out of the playoffs. It never hurts to be led by a player of that calibre.
The one wrinkle here is that Ekman-Larsson’s time in Arizona could be running out if the Coyotes don’t prove they’re serious about winning soon. He has two years remaining on his contract, and with potential unrestricted free agency in the offing, Ekman-Larsson could have his pick of the litter if he hits the open market. Even still, the Coyotes putting the ‘C’ on Ekman-Larsson and showing the faith in him to be the leader is the right move right now.
Ryan O’Reilly, Buffalo Sabres
There’s no confusing the fact that this will be Jack Eichel’s team in the near future, but, for the time being, it seems hard to overlook O’Reilly if the Sabres want to name a new captain following Brian Gionta’s departure.
Let’s run down O’Reilly’s importance to the Sabres. First, he takes on more on-ice responsibility than any other player, consistently averaging upwards of 21 minutes per night. Second, he’s as responsible a three-zone player as there is in the league. He’s been a perennial Selke Trophy contender over the past four seasons while consistently racking up between 55 to 64 points. He’s a 20-goal scorer, a power play contributor, talented in the faceoff circle and he’s rarely in the penalty box. He has 82 penalty minutes in his entire 570-game career. However, O’Reilly ran into some off-ice trouble which could make the Sabres hesitant. That said, his on-ice case is unassailable.
The big question in Buffalo, though, is whether the Sabres want to wait for Eichel to come along and take the captaincy. He may be less than a season away from earning it as the team’s top player and on-ice leader. That could mean we see a rotating ‘C’ or a cast of alternates until Eichel takes the role.
Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes
The confusing thing about Staal and the Hurricanes is that one would imagine if Carolina had interest in putting the ‘C’ on him, they would have done so by now. He’s been an alternate for the Hurricanes for each of the past four seasons, yet, with a captaincy that has been vacant since 2015-16, Carolina has yet to give him the nod. The time may be coming, though.
Staal continues to be an excellent lead-by-example type in Carolina, and, as a 28-year-old, he’s old enough now to command the respect of his younger teammates as an NHL veteran. Staal’s never won the Selke, but he is consistently in the running and his contributions at both ends of the ice are underrated. In addition, Staal is locked up for another six years, and while a team’s captaincy shouldn’t be decided on who’s going to be sticking around the longest, that Staal is set to be around long-term offers the team some stability.
Some will argue for Jeff Skinner or Justin Faulk, or maybe even Victor Rask, but all three could use some more seasoning before taking on the role, and there’s nothing stopping Carolina from downgrading Staal back to an alternate at some point in the future. The Hurricanes wouldn’t be the first team to pull that move, and maybe it’s the best way to have a clear-cut leader now while allowing a younger player to be shepherded into a leadership role.
Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
We discussed this at length last week, but Josi is the perfect fit in Nashville for myriad reasons. He’s been around the team for several seasons, has grown into the No. 1 role on the league’s best defense, is a consistent offensive contributor and all-situations player. And with Mike Fisher hanging up his skates, it only seems right that Josi would wear the ‘C’ next season.
But maybe it’s not a given. Some suggest P.K. Subban would be a good fit for the captaincy. Others think an underrated but steady hand, a Ryan Ellis or Mattias Ekholm, is the right choice. Still yet some will offer up Filip Forsberg, the Predators’ brightest young scorer, as the player to lead Nashville into the future. Each player has their merits, to be sure, but it’s incredibly difficult to suggest any of the aforementioned players can outshine Josi’s case for the captaincy.
Josi has been groomed for this. He’s been an alternate captain for the past two seasons, has played alongside former captain Shea Weber, has had the chance to watch Fisher guide the team and is heading right into the prime years of his career.
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews was shot out of a cannon to start his rookie season, putting up four goals on his first night in the league and setting a record that’s sure to stand for a long time. He finished the campaign by assuming the role as the team’s top center, was one of only three players to score 40 goals, led the Maple Leafs with 69 points. He captured the Calder Trophy, garnered Hart consideration and even had a vote thrown his way for the Selke. And, with the recent trend of young captains, Matthews seems a perfect choice to lead this team forward.
Now, with that out of the way, is there any other team that seems as certain to stick with the status quo — which is to say remain without a captain — than the Maple Leafs?
Yes, Matthews appears to be ready, and yes, Matthews looks like he’s another big year from being the unquestionable leader of the Maple Leafs. But the fact remains that he is playing in what is arguably the toughest market in the entire NHL, heading into his sophomore season, which is traditionally a year in which some players struggle, and Toronto may not want to rush Matthews into anything.
That would be smart, too. What is there to lose by not naming him captain? Nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing.
Oh, and if Toronto does want a captain, why not throw it on someone short-term? Ron Hainsey for two seasons or Patrick Marleau for the next three seem like decent bets if the Maple Leafs want a veteran leader.
James Neal, Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights’ captaincy might be the hardest one to pin down, especially given Vegas might forego a captain in their first year as they let the coaching staff, front office and fans get a bit more associated with the roster.
However, if you want to pin down a choice for captain, you have to whittle away the roster and narrow down the candidates. First, you can probably take away the still-developing players, which eliminates about half the roster, including players such as Oscar Lindberg, William Karlsson, Colin Miller and Shea Theodore. Then you can cross out the players who’ve never really held down leadership roles before, which, given what Vegas had to work with in expansion, is more than half the roster.
The Golden Knights are left with some options that fit the mold of a veteran player with leadership qualities and a history with wearing a letter: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and James Neal. And when those are your two options — and nothing against Bellemare — one would tend to lean on the side of Neal. He’s got three years as an alternate in Nashville under his belt, was considered a possible Predators captain when Shea Weber was traded to the Montreal Canadiens and was a player Nashville GM David Poile really didn’t want to lose in expansion. He’s valued on and off the ice.
Here’s a left-field suggestion, though: put the ‘C’ on Marc-Andre Fleury. Roberto Luongo was the last goaltender to be named captain, and while the experiment wasn’t a smashing success, there’s no harm in putting the captaincy on Fleury given he’s the most readily marketable player within the organization. He’s beloved by fans around the league and it’s clear how much his teammates in Pittsburgh valued him. Fleury as Golden Knights captain isn’t going to happen, but it wouldn’t be the worst choice, that’s for certain.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.