Connor McDavid (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Four captaincies were handed out ahead of the 2015-16 season, but as many as seven new captains could take the ice this coming season. Anze Kopitar will don the ‘C’ for the Los Angeles Kings, but which six players could fill the remaining vacancies throughout the league?
Four players became first-time captains in the NHL ahead of the 2015-16 season, each to varying degrees of success.
In San Jose, Joe Pavelski took over as captain after years of speculation that he was the next in line to wear the ‘C’ for the Sharks. In his first season, he helped lead the Sharks to the Stanley Cup final with an impressive post-season performance.
Pavelski was joined as a new captain by Max Pacioretty, who donned the ‘C’ for the first time and did so as a member of arguably the most storied organization in the history of the sport, the Montreal Canadiens. Pacioretty’s Canadiens flew out of the gate like an early Cup contender, but an injury to Carey Price derailed Montreal’s season.
Also joining the captains club were Nick Foligno, who was chosen to lead the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Andy Greene, selected by the New Jersey Devils to take the captaincy from the retiring Bryce Salvador. Both teams missed the post-season, but took some strides forward that have both fan bases hopeful for the coming campaign.
While four new captains may seem like a lot, there’s potential for as many as seven first-time captains to take over major leadership roles in 2016-17. Anze Kopitar has already been handed the ‘C’ for the Los Angeles Kings, but that still leaves the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers without captains. So, will those clubs have a captain this coming season and, if so, who will stitch the ‘C’ to their sweater?
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Frontrunner: There are already two clear frontrunners in St. Louis in Alexander Steen and Alex Pietrangelo, but the smart money might be on the young defenseman. With David Backes on his way to the Boston Bruins, the now-former Blues captain said that either Steen or Pietrangelo would be strong choices for the captaincy, but there’s something about Pietrangelo that just seems to make sense as a captain.
Pietrangelo, 26, has been a stalwart defensively for the Blues and he’s grown as the club has. Sometimes teams prefer to groom a leader and thrust him into the role as he’s set to hit his prime. For Pietrangelo, now looks like it could be that moment.
He’s locked up long-term in St. Louis — he has four years left on his deal — and has spent the past four seasons as an alternate captain for the Blues. It’s clear he’s respected by his teammates and while he may not be the most flashy player, he’s arguably the best all-around talent St. Louis has.
Sleeper: Vladimir Tarasenko had some public rifts with coach Ken Hitchcock and the Russian sniper may not be the most trusted player in Hitchcock’s arsenal, but he’s a bonafide star. That doesn’t automatically make him the right fit for captain, but he’s bound to become the face of the franchise, if he’s not there already.
Frontrunner: Roman Josi should be set to step out of Shea Weber’s shadow with the big, punishing blueliner heading off to Montreal. Fans who don’t see a lot of Predators games might not know how great Josi is, but slapping the ‘C’ on his jersey would make perfect sense given he seems the most obvious successor to Weber.
Josi does everything for the Predators, and that makes him a perfect fit for the captaincy. Say what you will for Weber, but it’s hard to argue that Josi was the most reliable defender the Predators had this past season and there’s no reason he shouldn’t improve with the increased responsibilities he’ll have this coming season in Nashville. He’ll almost certainly lead the team in ice time, be a top penalty kill defender and make one heck of a one-two punch on the power play with P.K. Subban.
For those still sleeping on Josi, he scored 14 goals and 61 points this past season and finished second in scoring on the Predators. The 26-year-old Swiss defender just keeps getting better.
Sleeper: Maybe GM David Poile and coach Peter Laviolette want to have a transition year before handing the captaincy to Josi and prepare him for the role. That wouldn’t be the most bizarre choice considering the Weber-Subban deal came as quite the shock. The perfect transitional captain could be Mike Fisher, who has long been considered a good leader and has been an alternate captain for all but his first year with the Predators.
Frontrunner: The Hurricanes could remain captainless for a campaign and see who comes to the forefront as the team’s leader during the transitional period post-Eric Staal, but it'd be hard to argue with Justin Faulk as this team's leader.
Though he’s only 24, Faulk continues to develop into a perennial all-star blueliner. Faulk has represented Carolina at the past two all-star weekends, he’s an Olympian who has won international medals and Faulk took on a leadership role with the American squad at the 2014-15 World Championship.
Signed for four more years in Carolina, it’s likely Faulk remains a top-two blueliner with the Hurricanes well into his prime. He’s been there through the tough times, and now he could be the one to lead the rebuilt team into the future.
Sleeper: Calling Jordan Staal a sleeper may not be wholly accurate, but the 27-year-old brother of the Hurricanes’ former captain is a good second option. Locked up for another seven seasons at $6 million per season, he looks like he’s set to be in Carolina for the long haul, and he’s the type of player who usually gets consideration for a team’s captaincy: a responsible two-way pivot who can contribute in-or-around 20 goals on the offensive side of the puck.
Frontrunner: It’s hard to think of anyone better than Blake Wheeler to wear the ‘C.’
Few players have been as vocal — and as serious about righting the ship when things are going poorly — as Wheeler, and he recently told the Winnipeg Free Press’ Tim Campbell that he’s not going to change anything about his game regardless of what letter is on his jersey. An alternate for the past three seasons, too, Wheeler knows the responsibility that comes with wearing a letter in Winnipeg.
None of this is to mention Wheeler, 29, is coming off of the best season of his career and has flirted with the 30-goal plateau for the past three seasons. Wheeler seems like captain material.
That said, Wheeler has some serious competition in Dustin Byfuglien. No player gets the Winnipeg crowd going quite like ‘Big Buff,’ and he would be far from a bad choice to take over from Andrew Ladd. Byfuglien’s got the Cup, he’s the kind of player who would put the team on his shoulders and his new five-year deal should see him remain in a Jets uniform for quite some time.
Sleeper: Mark Scheifele’s only just getting started, but locked up to a massive eight-year deal and coming off of a 29-goal, 61-point campaign has him looking like he could be a star in the making. The only argument is that it might not be Scheifele’s team quite yet. There’s no doubting he has the potential to get there, though.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Frontrunner: It’s hard to picture the Maple Leafs deciding on a captain just yet, though that's only because there are a number of options waiting in the wings. There's no reason to rush the choice.
Kadri was given a chance to prove to the Maple Leafs that he was all that he said he was this past season, and the 25-year-old delivered with a 17-goal, 45-point season while taking on a much bigger role. He was rewarded with a six-year, $27-million contract, and he should remain a top-six center for the rest of his days in Toronto.
As for Rielly, he landed a six-year, $30-million deal and he looks better with almost each passing game. The swift-skating defenseman posted nine goals and 36 points, but he was also sound defensively. He’s found a great fit for himself in Toronto under Mike Babcock, and though Rielly’s only 22, it’s hard to imagine the state the Maple Leafs blueline would be in without him.
Sleeper: Why not go all-in on Auston Matthews and give him the captaincy right out of the gate? Only kidding. But there’s a good chance one of the young guns will establish themselves within the next two seasons and be handed the ‘C,’ and would it surprise anyone at all were that Matthews? He’s been compared to the likes of Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. That’s high praise, and if he fits that mould, he’ll be a strong captaincy contender.
Frontrunner: Edmonton can do it now or they can do it later, but barring anything catastrophic the captaincy is eventually going to be Connor McDavid’s. That’s a fact. It only makes sense to make McDavid the captain now, too.
In his rookie season, he was the best player the Oilers had and that’s not even the slightest bit of exaggeration. He lived up to every bit of hype that had been heaped upon him, handled it well and is already the face of the franchise.
Were it not for the injury that derailed his season, McDavid likely would have captured the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. In fact, had he been healthy and kept his scoring pace, he would have finished third in league scoring. If the Oilers were a playoff contender, McDavid may have even gotten Hart Trophy consideration, which is mind-boggling.
If he’s named captain ahead of the upcoming season, McDavid would join the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Toews as current captains who were wearing the ‘C’ by their sophomore season.
Sleeper: McDavid may decide now’s not the time, though, and defer the captaincy. That’s not unheard of. Sidney Crosby did just that in Pittsburgh, waiting until his third season to take the Penguins’ captaincy. If the Oilers are looking for a placeholder, Jordan Eberle fits the bill. However, if it’s only going to be a matter of time, it’s best to simply leave the captaincy vacant until McDavid decides he wants the role.
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