The Hurricanes have a captain for the first time in nearly 600 days as Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal have been named co-captains. With the 2017-18 NHL season underway, how are captain-less teams handling the 'C' vacancies?
From the moment Eric Staal was traded to the New York Rangers on Feb. 28, 2016, until now, the Carolina Hurricanes have gone without a captain. That’s a grand total of 585 days. But with hopes higher than they have been in years in Carolina, the franchise decided now, on the cusp of their 2017-18 campaign, was the time to define their leadership group.
Well, kind of.
After much speculation about the identity of the first player since Staal to wear the ‘C’ for the Hurricanes, Carolina announced Thursday that they’ve named not one but two players as their captain for this season. At home, Jordan Staal will wear the 'C,' while Justin Faulk will take charge on the road. And while it's a nice tip of the cap to Staal and Faulk, it’d be fair to call the decision a head-scratcher.
One of the more puzzling aspects of the decision is that this was an opportunity for the Hurricanes to make a clear-cut decision about who would lead this team, a group with real playoff aspirations for the first time in several years, both now and in the future. For that, Staal would've been a fair enough choice. He's the team’s fifth-oldest player and most reliable two-way pivot. Likewise, Faulk would've been a good choice on his lonesome given he’s the cornerstone of the blueline and has been so for the past several seasons. But to name both muddles the captaincy somewhat. It doesn’t give the organization one clear leader on or off the ice.
Beyond that, a fair assessment would suggest both Staal and Faulk aren’t truly all that long for the job. Despite his two-way ability, Staal’s role has diminished somewhat over the past few seasons with Victor Rask stepping in as the top-line center. Meanwhile, the emergence of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, as well as the potential of Noah Hanifin, makes Faulk potentially expendable in the not-too-distant future. If either move on, or if one of the younger players steps up further, does the captaincy shift once again?
There were certainly other players pegged for the captaincy, too, with Jeff Skinner among those some believed could take on the role. Skinner will be part of the leadership group as an alternate captain — he wore an ‘A’ last season, as well — but he would've been a viable option for the ‘C.' His case is clear enough: he is Carolina’s most effective scorer, is only now entering his prime and can grow into the role while the rest of the team grows around him. Additionally, some would've suggested veteran Justin Williams take on the role. It’d be a Mike Fisher-esque captaincy; he’d help transition the ‘C’ to the next player when his two-year contract, or his retirement, comes about.
That’s not to say this can’t work out for the Hurricanes, and it’s not as if Carolina is the first team to run with co-captains. In the not-too-distant past, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury shared the Buffalo Sabres’ captaincy from 2005 to 2007. During the same period, Adrian Aucoin and Martin Lapointe shared the captaincy in Chicago. Bob Boughner and Craig Conroy were co-captains with the Calgary Flames from late in the 2001-02 season to 2003.
Now that Carolina’s captaincy is out of the way, though, it leaves four teams with leadership questions to answer in the near future:
The decision to allow Shane Doan to walk into free agency resulted in the Coyotes being down a captain, though many believed it was only a matter of time before the ‘C’ found its way onto Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s jersey. Such a move would've made sense for a multitude of reasons. He’s now the face of the franchise, he’s the team’s best player and Arizona has built its blueline around him. However, the Coyotes decided to go a different route.
This season, Ekman-Larsson will continue to wear an ‘A,’ with off-season addition Niklas Hjalmarsson joining his fellow Swedish blueliner as one of two players to wear a letter full-time. Additionally, Derek Stepan, Brad Richardson and Alex Goligoski will rotate the fourth alternate captaincy.
It’s safe to say this will only be the case for a short while, or at least until the Coyotes find a way forward with Ekman-Larsson. At present, he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019-20, but if he re-signs in Arizona, you could put a healthy wager down that he’ll be given the ‘C’ sooner rather than later.
Jack Eichel’s eight-year, $80-million deal says a few things. First, it makes Eichel the clearly defined franchise player, if that wasn’t evident enough already. Second, it says the Sabres are expecting him to improve on his 0.93 points-per-game pace from last year and enter the league’s top 10 in scoring as soon as this season. Lastly, it suggests that Eichel is going to be seen as the on- and off-ice leader of this club for years to come.
The Sabres aren’t about to go ahead and give Eichel the added pressure of stitching the ‘C’ to his jersey quite yet, however. He will start the season with an increased presence in the leadership group, mind you, as he’s been given an alternate captaincy. Eichel will be joined by Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Zach Bogosian, each of whom will wear an 'A' on a rotating basis throughout the season.
Make no mistake, though, this is Eichel’s team. And with Sabres GM Jason Botterill noting a captain is a possibility at some point this season, according to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, a solid performance from Eichel to start the season could mean he’s taking on the captaincy before the campaign closes.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Maple Leafs entered this season with options. Morgan Rielly could have been captain. Tyler Bozak has long been a fixture of the leadership group. Nazem Kadri has emerged as an important part of the organization. Ron Hainsey brings a veteran quality to the dressing room. But that Toronto went without a captain, the second straight season they’ve been without one, points to one thing and one thing only: Auston Matthews.
He’s the Maple Leafs’ version of Connor McDavid. He’s Toronto’s Jack Eichel. And Matthews, who is set to be paid like both in short order, is also going to be taking on a similar role. It could be as soon as next season that he wears the ‘C,' and chances are that the only thing holding the Leafs back from doing it this season is the already outsized expectations placed upon Matthews.
It’s coming, though. If you’re a Leafs fan whose purchased Matthews’ No. 34 jersey, set some cash aside to affix a ‘C’ to it at some point in the near future.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Vegas’ captaincy situation is the hardest of any to handicap. Let’s take a look at what the Golden Knights are working with. Seven of their forwards are set to become free agents next season, four of whom are unrestricted. Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, Griffin Reinhart and Brad Hunt are the only notable defensemen locked in past this season. And, if they would even consider the goaltender route, Marc-Andre Fleury is the only choice and he’s done his deal by 2019-20. So, you know, not a lot to pick from in Vegas, and GM George McPhee made it awfully clear he’s not looking for a short-term solution to the vacant captaincy.
"We may be better off just having a leadership group than naming one guy captain," said McPhee in early September, per NHL.com's Lisa Dillman. "We really don't want to put a 'C' on a guy unless this is going to be the person that's going to lead us for a long time. We'd like to get to know these players a lot better than we know them right now.”
Honestly, that doesn’t leave many options open. Reilly Smith is set to be in Vegas long-term and he was a one-year captain during his NCAA career at University of Miami. Cody Eakin has a three-year deal and he was captain of the WHL's Swift Current Broncos for one season. Theodore, once he re-signs out of his entry-level deal, is an option as a former alternate and captain with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Otherwise, though, the pickings are slim.
If McPhee sticks with the long-term mentality for a captain, Vegas could find themselves in a situation similar to that of the Minnesota Wild. It took the Wild nine seasons before they named Mikko Koivu as the franchise’s first permanent captain.
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