NHL captaincies can get, well, complicated.
As the Maple Leafs prepare to go into the 2018-19 NHL season without any player wearing the C, it’s worth wondering if — when you really look at it — that might be the easiest, safest and simplest way to go. Moreover, at a time when hockey continues to change at warp speed, with a style of play that’s remarkably different than 15 or 20 years ago and with teams looking to establish very different types of organizational structures, you have to wonder if the time will come when some team simply announces, “We’re not going to have a captain because, quite frankly, you don’t need a captain to win.”
Having a specific player wear a specific letter seems in many ways to be an anachronism, a ceremonial tradition from a bygone era that really has little relevance today.
Right now, seven of 31 teams don’t have a captain, including Toronto. That’s more than 20 per cent of the league and one of those teams, Las Vegas, went all the way to the Stanley Cup final last spring. So how much does having a captain, or not having one, really matter?
Most teams still believe they need, or at least want, a captain. Problem is, sometimes it adds a messy layer of complexity to an individual player’s situation. We’ve seen it here in Toronto. When Mats Sundin was in his final days as a Leaf, the fact that he was captain of the team made the fact he refused to agree to a trade more problematic. Shouldn’t the captain have been looking out for the best interests of the team, not himself?
Then there was Dion Phaneuf. It’s not hard to imagine that Phaneuf’s life as a Leaf might have been much simpler had Brian Burke and Ron Wilson not decided to make him captain of the team after he’d played less than a full season in blue and white. Fans didn’t get much of a chance to warm up to him, and the letter on his jersey (along with his salary) just seemed to make the flaws in his game more noticeable, more glaring.
Now look at what’s going on in Montreal. Habs captain Max Pacioretty is heading into the final final season of a six-year, $27-million contract (all dollars U.S.). There is little or no indication Montreal intends to even offer him a new contract, although Pacioretty has said repeatedly he wants to stay.
Montreal thought they had a trade in place with L.A. at the draft in June, but it fell apart when Pacioretty declined to sign a contract extension with the Kings. It would be one thing if this was just about Pacioretty the scoring winger. But the fact he’s the captain, and the player chosen instead of the departed P.K. Subban for that role, and the fact the team hasn’t been any good at all since that choice was made, supplies a strong undercurrent to this entire episode.
The sense is that Pacioretty hasn’t fallen out of favour because of his play, although he had only 17 goals last season in 64 games. It’s his captaincy that seems to have been found wanting. GM Marc Bergevin criticized the team’s “attitude” at the end of last season, the kind of comment that goes directly to the captain.
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If Pacioretty wasn’t the captain, his life would be immeasurably easier, and the Habs might not be so motivated to move him. Or it might be easier to do so. Giving him the C changed everything.
Now look to Ottawa. Star defenceman Erik Karlsson remains on the block, although it’s looking more and more like he might start the season with the Sens. No, that won’t be awkward at all.
Mike Hoffman may be gone, but the situation with Karlsson — he’s an unrestricted free agent at season’s end — remains massively problematic for owner Eugene Melnyk. Like Pacioretty, the issue is complicated by the fact Karlsson is also the team’s captain, so if he’s dealt it opens up a large hole in the organization, assuming the Sens are one of those teams that fervently believes having a captain is critical to team success.
It’s not that giving Karlsson the C was a mistake — of course not — but when the end of the marriage between team and player comes, the captaincy makes breaking up harder to do.
Winnipeg, of course, would differ on all this. Captain Blake Wheeler signed a five-year, $41.25-million extension this week, and the news of that deal was greeted warmly by the Jets fan base. With so many contractual question marks, getting the captain locked in seemed even more meaningful than otherwise would have been the case. The Jets made it to the final four last year, and taking the next step, in theory, will be easier with the key leaders on the team committed for the long term.
That’s fine. But let’s look beyond this season. Wheeler is 32, coming off a 91-point season. Where’s he going to be in three years when his salary jumps to $10 million a season?
If the team’s still doing well, no problem. But if it’s not, or if other players can’t be kept because of Wheeler’s salary, the dynamic changes. All of a sudden, it will be like Pacioretty in Montreal or Karlsson in Ottawa, and the situation will be messier because of the fact Wheeler is the team’s captain.
Putting one player above his teammates, designating him as the single most important leader, may work in theory. But in practice? In 2018, when the salary cap means teams have to make hard decisions, when so few players play their career with one team? Maybe not so much.
Go without a captain and you never have to go down this road. But teams like tradition. They love putting letters on jerseys. So expect the complications of the captaincy to remain part of the NHL landscape for the foreseeable future.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin