Erik Karlsson would accept Sens captaincy. Is he the right pick?

Matt Larkin
ErikKarlsson

At 24, Erik Karlsson is already the best offensive defenseman of his era. His 74 points were 13 more than the next-closest blueliner, Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, had in 2013-14. Karlsson has outscored every D-man in the league by 29 or more points over the last three seasons.

But should he be a captain right now?

The Ottawa Senators have a vacancy after trading Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars. This week, when asked about wearing the ‘C,’ Karlsson responded with an open mind.

“Obviously it’s something I wouldn’t say no to, (but) it’s not something that I’m going to ask for,” Karlsson told the Senators website Monday. “Whoever makes the decision is going to make the right one, and whether it’s me or someone else, it’s going to be good for the team and good for the organization.”

The idea of Karlsson wearing the ‘C’ raises the question: what constitutes a captain in today’s NHL? And has it changed in recent years?

Here’s a look at the league’s captains 20 years ago, in 1993-94. Top-30 scorers that year are bolded, as are defensemen who scored in the top five at their position. Age at the start of that season is in brackets.

1993-94 CAPTAINS

  1. Anaheim: Troy Loney (30)
  2. Arizona (Winnipeg): Dean Kennedy (30), Keith Tkachuk (21)
  3. Boston: Raymond Bourque (32)
  4. Buffalo: Pat LaFontaine (28), Alexander Mogilny (24)
  5. Calgary: Joe Nieuwendyk (27)
  6. Carolina (Hartford): Pat Verbeek (29)
  7. Chicago: Dirk Graham (34)
  8. Colorado (Quebec): Joe Sakic (24)
  9. Dallas: Neal Broten (33), Derian Hatcher (21)
  10. Detroit: Steve Yzerman (28)
  11. Edmonton: Craig MacTavish (35)
  12. Florida: Brian Skrudland (30)
  13. Los Angeles: Wayne Gretzky (32)
  14. Montreal: Guy Carbonneau (33)
  15. New Jersey: Scott Stevens (29)
  16. New York Islanders: Pat Flatley (30)
  17. New York Rangers: Mark Messier (32)
  18. Ottawa: Brad Shaw, Mark Lamb (29), Gord Dineen (31)
  19. Philadelphia: Kevin Dineen (29)
  20. Pittsburgh: Mario Lemieux (28)
  21. St. Louis: Brett Hull (29)
  22. San Jose: Bob Errey (29)
  23. Tampa Bay: None
  24. Toronto: Wendel Clark (26)
  25. Vancouver: Trevor Linden (23)
  26. Washington: Kevin Hatcher (27)

 

Average age: 28.7

Now, the captains 10 years ago:

2003-04 CAPTAINS

  1. Anaheim: Steve Rucchin (32)
  2. Arizona (Phoenix): Shane Doan (26)
  3. Boston: Joe Thornton (24)
  4. Buffalo: Miroslav Satan (28), Chris Drury (27), James Patrick (40), J.P. Dumont (25), Daniel Briere (26)
  5. Calgary: Jarome Iginla (26)
  6. Carolina: Ron Francis (40)
  7. Chicago: Alex Zhamnov (33)
  8. Colorado: Joe Sakic (34)
  9. Columbus: Luke Richardson (34)
  10. Dallas: Mike Modano (33)
  11. Detroit: Steve Yzerman (38)
  12. Edmonton: Jason Smith (29)
  13. Florida: Olli Jokinen (24)
  14. Los Angeles: Mattias Norstrom (31)
  15. Minnesota: Brad Brown (27), Andrew Brunette (30), Richard Park (27), Brad Bombardir (31), Jim Dowd (34)
  16. Montreal: Saku Koivu (28)
  17. Nashville: Greg Johnson (32)
  18. New Jersey: Scott Stevens (39), Scott Niedermayer (30)
  19. New York Islanders: Michael Peca (29)
  20. New York Rangers: Mark Messier (42)
  21. Ottawa: Daniel Alfredsson (30)
  22. Philadelphia: Keith Primeau (31)
  23. Pittsburgh: Mario Lemieux (38)
  24. St. Louis: Al MacInnis (40)
  25. San Jose: Mike Ricci (31), Vincent Damphousse (35), Alyn McCauley (26), Patrick Marleau (24)
  26. Tampa Bay: Dave Andreychuk (40)
  27. Toronto: Mats Sundin (32)
  28. Vancouver: Markus Naslund (30)
  29. Washington: Steve Konowalchuk (30)
  30. Winnipeg (Atlanta): Shawn McEachern (34)

 

Average age: 30.7

Lastly, the captains of the completed 2013-14 campaign:

2013-14 CAPTAINS

  1. Anaheim: Ryan Getzlaf (28)
  2. Arizona (Phoenix): Shane Doan (36)
  3. Boston: Zdeno Chara (36)
  4. Buffalo: None
  5. Calgary: Mark Giordano (30)
  6. Carolina: Eric Staal (28)
  7. Chicago: Jonathan Toews (25)
  8. Colorado: Gabriel Landeskog (20)
  9. Columbus: None
  10. Dallas: Jamie Benn (24)
  11. Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg (32)
  12. Edmonton: Andrew Ference (34)
  13. Florida: None
  14. Los Angeles: Dustin Brown (28)
  15. Minnesota: Mikko Koivu (30)
  16. Montreal: Brian Gionta (34)
  17. Nashville: Shea Weber (28)
  18. New Jersey: Bryce Salvador (37)
  19. New York Islanders: John Tavares (23)
  20. New York Rangers: Ryan Callahan (28)
  21. Ottawa: Jason Spezza (30)
  22. Philadelphia: Claude Giroux (25)
  23. Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby (26)
  24. St. Louis: David Backes (29)
  25. San Jose: Joe Thornton (34)
  26. Tampa Bay: Martin St-Louis (38), Steven Stamkos (23)
  27. Toronto: Dion Phaneuf (28)
  28. Vancouver: Henrik Sedin (33)
  29. Washington: Alex Ovechkin (28)
  30. Winnipeg: Andrew Ladd (27)

 

Average age: 29.4

The captaincy trends send mixed signals on whether Karlsson fits the bill. On one hand, he’s five years younger than the average age among captains today. Perhaps, then, a cagey vet who bleeds Ottawa colors like Chris Phillips or Chris Neil makes more sense. But how much can a Chris Neil type lead by example on the ice in the modern NHL? The shift toward simply naming your best offensive player captain works heavily in Karlsson’s favor.

The system I use here isn’t perfect, as it doesn’t account for injuries, but it still reveals an interesting pattern. Six “elite” offensive players wore the ‘C’ for their teams 20 seasons ago. Ten seasons ago, nine captains fit the elite description. Of last season’s group, 11 were top-30 scorers and/or among the top five highest-scoring defensemen.

What does it all mean? The transition suggests the Dirk Grahams and Derian Hatchers of the world are gradually going the way of the Dodo, and teams are more frequently just handing the captaincy to their star offensive players. Why? One reason is the stud scorers tend to command longer-term contracts and thus lend well to captain continuity. Another reason? The ideal of one leader who rallies the troops to go to war doesn’t exist anymore. During an interview for a recent story I did on Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble told me that, when Knuble was in Washington, the veteran Capital players formed a de facto “captain by committee” to help Ovie with his responsibilities.

“Nobody wanted his play to falter, nobody wanted him to get bogged down in this captain stuff,” Knuble said. “We just wanted him to keep going and be the player he could be.”

Dressing rooms have so many strong voices nowadays that being a captain doesn’t mean what it once did. It’s more about being the face of the franchise. And while Karlsson remains relatively unproven as a leader, he’s one of the elite talents of this generation at his position. Based on the modern trends, he’s as strong a pick for the captaincy as any other Senator.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin