Alex Pietrangelo and Alexander Steen (Jeff Curry/NHLI via Getty Images)
David Backes’ departure leaves the St. Louis Blues in need of a new captain, and there are two clearcut frontrunners to take over the captaincy in Alexander Steen and Alex Pietrangelo. Steen, 32, offers veteran savvy, while Pietrangelo, 26, could be the leader of the franchise for years to come.
For the most recent generation of St. Louis fans, David Backes is the captain. Or, rather, was.
Backes wore the ‘C’ for the Blues for the past five seasons, but his off-season departure to the Boston Bruins — on a five-year, $30-million deal, no less — has seen St. Louis’ captaincy vacated.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford that losing Backes, who was an on- and off-ice leader for the Blues even before he was given the captaincy, was something the organization had hoped they wouldn’t have to deal with. However, Backes’ move to Beantown makes naming a new captain a process the Blues will have to undertake.
St. Louis aren’t the only captainless team, though, as there are five other organizations — the Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets — currently without a player who has the ‘C’ stitched to their chest. But unlike a few of the other organizations without a captain, the Blues appear to have at least a few clearcut options when it comes to naming a new captain. In speaking with Rutherford, Backes himself had two excellent suggestions for successors.
“All the guys in that room are leaders,” Backes told Rutherford. “They were all captains, I’m sure, of their younger teams, and they all know what it takes. Maybe some were down the ranks (with the Blues) and are going to have to step up and get closer to the front of the pack, but they’re all capable. And with ‘Steener’ and ‘Petro’ probably leading the way, there’s plenty of leadership still in that room that they’ll be able to guide the troops.”
So, who between Steen and Pietrangelo gets the ‘C’ when the Blues hit the ice for opening night? Here are the cases for both:
Transitioning from Backes to Steen seems the easiest bet, not least of all because of one trait the players share. The play-styles of Backes and Steen aren’t at all the same — Backes is physical and in your face, Steen is more offensively gifted and likelier to use his stick to break up a play than his body — but both value playing well at both ends of the ice.
From 2011-12 to 2014-15, Backes finished no lower than fifth in Selke Trophy voting as the league’s top defensive forward, and Steen has a bit of that to his game, although his best finish in the past three seasons has been 15th in voting, which has happened twice. Steen may be a bit underrated as a two-way forward, though. He’s made life incredibly difficult for opponents and he’s often matched up against the opposition’s top units.
That’s an incredibly valuable part of Steen’s game, especially under coach Ken Hitchcock, and a trait that many captains throughout the league share -- two-way play is in no way undervalued when it comes to captains. Just take a quick glance throughout the league at players such as Anze Kopitar, Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg and Jonathan Toews, each of whom are stellar at both ends of the ice and wear the 'C' for their respective clubs.
Steen has also spent the past six seasons as an alternate captain with the Blues, so he’s already grown to be a major part of the team’s leadership group. Bumping him up a spot to the captaincy seems natural, and the 32-year-old winger should be able to instantly earn the respect of any player who comes into the dressing room.
However, there is a rub: Steen’s contract is up after this coming season and it’s no certainty that the Blues will, or be able to, bring him back. Steen will be a valuable commodity on the open market and he may be interested in testing free agency for the first time in his career, much like Backes did on July 1. If Steen takes over as captain, is it yet another one off? That might be the gamble the Blues have to take.
It’s hard to believe Pietrangelo is already 26, but he’s been around — and been a big part of the Blues recent success — for the entirety of his career. Locked up for another four seasons, Pietrangelo would be the perfect choice were the Blues looking for someone to wear the ‘C’ for the foreseeable future.
Pietrangleo became part of the leadership group in 2013-14 when he was named an alternate captain, and his game has only continued to grow. He’s the top defenseman on the Blues, a consistent scorer and there’s a serious chance he could grow into a perennial Norris Trophy candidate with the way his game has progressed. Twice already he’s finished top-five in voting, so he’s been close.
When it comes to the captaincy, Pietrangelo would benefit from having grown with the organization. He began his career during the Davis Payne coaching era and has flourished under Hitchcock. Pietrangelo has been around for the heartbreak of three-straight first-round playoff exits and was a major part of the breakthrough that was the Western Conference final appearance this past season.
The only question, then, is if the Blues believe it’s the right time to put the ‘C’ on Pietrangelo or if he’s still got room to grow before St. Louis adds the pressure of the captaincy. That will be up to Armstrong, Hitchcock and the Blues staff to decide, but it doesn’t feel as though now is the wrong time.
Regardless of who lands the captaincy, though, St. Louis appears to be in good hands. With Steen as the captain, the Blues will have a versatile veteran forward as their leader and Pietrangelo can offer youthful leadership with an eye on the future. It’ll be hard to argue with either.
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