"We're sorry, Dustin. You're just not... Mike Richardsy enough."

The list of things I find magical and mysterious about hockey is a mile long, and near the top of it is the Captaincy of an NHL team (imagine me punctuating “Captaincy” with jazz hands).

While part of a captain’s role is well-defined and practical, it’s the maddeningly ethereal side of it that I’ve spent a ridiculous number of hours noodling over.

If you have a great captain, you may never even think about what he does to be great. It just happens. He’s gracious with the media, has his finger on the pulse of his team, and leads by example both on and off the ice.

He’s smart, heroic, and responsible. He’s the sort of guy you could take home to Mom and she’d end up liking him more than she likes you.  “You should have married that one,” she’ll say 20 years later.

The man with the C on his sweater is, in the eyes of his organization, the ultimate player representative for the team, embodying the qualities they want to portray to the outside world.

If you’ve picked the right guy, there’s really no reason to even think about it, other than the occasional, “Gosh, our captain is a bang up fella!”

But if your team hasn’t picked the right guy, the results can range from vaguely cringe-inducing to downright destructive.

Three captaincies in particular jump out at me this season as having varying degrees of, let’s call it, questionable success:

Alex Ovechkin

It seems like one minute, Ovi was the golden boy of the NHL – dynamic, gregarious, beloved – and the next, he’s an afterthought in the “league’s greatest players” conversation, tied up in controversial, suspension-worthy hits, coach-killing, and questions of work ethic.

"I've made a huge mistake."

Not exactly the kind of stuff you want surrounding the captain of your struggling, “should be better than this” team.

A fair amount has been written about what’s weighing Ovechkin down lately. This from the Washington Post yesterday and this from the Washingtonian are pretty illuminating in terms of digging into the factors behind Ovechkin’s lousy showing, both as a captain and player.

The day the Caps named Ovi their captain, I distinctly remember feeling like it was an absurd decision. Sure, he was one of the best players in the world, but was he a leader of men? Not really. It felt more like they were going tit-for-tat in the rivalry with Crosby.

And while leadership doesn’t win championships, championships aren’t won without it, and weak leadership and selfishness have pulled the rug out from under Washington over the last two seasons. For a team on the doorstep of a serious Cup run for several years in a row, you have to slap that C on the best leader, not necessarily the star.

But the bed has been made, so now what? Per Capgeek.com, Ovechkin has another 9 years on his contract and has a No Trade Clause until the 2014-15 season, when it merely becomes a limited NTC. And he’s making $10M a year at that point, so… yeah.

The best hope for the Caps is that, of course, Ovi gets himself a little shakabuku and becomes The Great 8 again and carries the team on sheer will and gumption like he used to be able to do. Barring that, one hopes he has the good sense to relinquish the C to someone more appropriate. But lately, good sense hasn’t been his forte.

Dustin Brown

In a considerably less dramatic case of CaptainFail, Brown seems to have fallen out of favor mainly because there’s a better option now.

Rumors of his departure as a trade deadline play were in full force a couple of weeks ago, buoyed by indications inside the team that they might prefer having Mike Richards wearing the C.

This is achingly awkward in just about every direction. Brown is inherently undermined as a leader in the room and embarrassed by the notion that his team wants to strip him of the captaincy, especially having found out after the media (#18).

There isn’t a ton of precedent set for switching captains when both guys are still on the team (I’m just pretending that Luongo thing never happened). Elliott Friedman cites San Jose and Patrick Marleau as an example where it’s worked, but it was handled with a high degree of sensitivity. As it should be, and as the Kings appear to not have done here.

So really, the best hope is that Brown gets to go someplace else, the Kings get a big return for him because he’s pissed off and playing like gangbusters right now, and Richards can usher in a new era of leadership in L.A.

Mikko Koivu

I’m not going to lie, I haven’t totally convinced myself that I’m on to anything with this one. It’s just a faint whiff of something I get from St. Paul occasionally, but I also can’t seem to shake it.

If he's good enough to captain Team Finland to a gold, surely he could lead a good Wild to the promised land.

Let me start with this: I do think Koivu is a leader, and a good one, mainly by example. He is intense, hates to lose, a well-rounded, responsible player. He’s got an legendary work ethic and carries himself like a guy you can happily say, “This is what our franchise is about. This is who we want to be.”

But that intensity can sometimes turn into moodiness, and that’s yucky out of a captain. Guys who get so cranked up about losses or cold streaks, or whatever the struggle du jour is, are just wet blankets.

And wet blankets will put out small fires. And when your team sucks for as long as the Wild have, and that fire is small and delicate, boy, your captain needs to be the guy bringing the oxygen, not the one cutting it off.

That said, this is mostly conjecture on my part; reading the between the lines of the mass of information coming out of St. Paul and doing a little 2+2ing of my own, and while I believe Koivu has the potential to be a truly great captain, I’m not sure he’s great right now for the team he’s the captaining.

I think as the Wild get better and Mikko becomes more productive with his intensity, the fit will get better. It’s not anything close to a lost cause as the other two situations I’ve mentioned seem to be headed toward. But it’s out there, in the atmosphere, nagging at me.

Certainly, we would all like to have Lidstrom wearing the C for our team. Any guy with the nickname “The Perfect Human” is probably pretty good Captain material. But for most teams, you just hope you have the right captain for the guys in the room at that time.

And surprisingly, most teams do seem to get it right, which perhaps makes it all the more painful for the teams who get it wrong. It’s not an insurmountable problem, bu at best, t it can make for some damn awkward times for those involved, and  at worst, derail and divide a locker room.

Comments (13)

  1. Morrow and Modano pulled the old switcheroo a couple years ago too.

  2. “Elliott Friedman cites San Jose and Patrick Marleau as an example where it’s worked”

    This worked? Not my first choice of a well-led team.
    Also, you might have looked at Milan Hejduk; named captain….in November! Apparently he hadn’t proven enough to the club. Talk about a non-confidence vote.

    • What I mean is where a captain transition worked and wasn’t a huge kerfuffle with lots of hurt feelings and drama. I would completely agree that there’s a weird leadership vacuum in San Jose that they can’t seem to cure.

  3. On a slightly different tangent, a couple of thoughts for next year’s captains.

    New Jersey: If Parise leaves, who’s going to take over? Right now I’d say Kovalchuk purely because he’s playing like he’s possessed (pun intended) and he already wears the A.

    Columbus: If Nash leaves, who the hell is left to pick up the C? Their current assistants (Dorsett and Prospal) don’t scream CAPTAIN to me. The only other alternatives to me would be Jack Johnson, Kristian Huseluis and Wisniewski. If it were me I’d probably go with Johnson and Huseluis wearing the A’s and The Wis for Captain. Again, I’ve no idea what these guys bring to the table in regard to Ms. Conducts article. To reference the article, the Blue Jacket’s need a lot of oxygen to get them going.

  4. I personally love that Koivu is a grumpy S.O.B when the Wild are losing. I can’t fathom a reason a person would want a captain that seems like he doesn’t care when his team is sucking, and when Koivu is pissed, he is generally playing his best. Koivu’s value as a leader and captain can be seen by just looking at the Wild’s record over the past 3 seasons when he is out. The Wild completely fall apart every single time he misses a game.

    • They fall apart when he’s there too, anymore. I’m obviously not suggesting he should appear as though he doesn’t care… I’m saying, if he mellowed out a smidge, it might not be a bad thing. I just get the sense that he can be a bit too “heavy” when maybe that’s not what the team needs.

  5. Would love to see Parise in a Wild sweater with a big “C” on it.

  6. No offense but you’re wrong about Brown and the Kings. Richards is happier because he’s not wearing a “C”. Most of my Philly friends who have followed his career agree. Even if Brown lo longer captains this team, don’t expect Mike Richards to take up that mantle any time soon.

  7. I appreciate your noting that a lot of this conjecture. When we talk about “Good” captains and “Bad” captains – Id say is all conjecture. Its almost impossible to get into analyses of what makes a good or bad captain, especially when we try to get “inside the room”.

    “Sure, he was one of the best players in the world, but was he a leader of men? Not really. It felt more like they were going tit-for-tat in the rivalry with Crosby….And while leadership doesn’t win championships, championships aren’t won without it, and weak leadership and selfishness have pulled the rug out from under Washington over the last two seasons.”

    Captains are either one of two things:

    1. The team’s “best player”.
    2. The guy (typically North American) who is seen as tough, gritty, and humble.

    In a perfect world, the player is both. Toews, Crosby, Iginla for example.

    For the Best Player, if the team wins – the guy becomes a Great Leader of Men. The humble role player guy – well he gets more of a break because we don’t expect as much from him. So someone like Ovechkin becomes an easy target – we equate his team’s success with his ability to be a leader. Ovechkin is an easy target, scored 10 pts in 9 games in the 2011 payoffs. What else should he have done? Put a Mark Messier guaranty on the wall? Score less and block a few more shots? Play goal so the Caps would have actually had an over .890 save % against Tampa?

    Does Shane Doan get the same kind of analysis? Does Ryan Callahan? If the Rangers go into the playoffs as the 1st seed in the East, they could easily crash out against the 8th seed, which may be the Caps. If the Rangers got swept, and Ovechkin scored 9 goals in the 4 games, neither player’s “captain” reputation would change in the slightest.

    • “So someone like Ovechkin becomes an easy target – we equate his team’s success with his ability to be a leader. Ovechkin is an easy target, scored 10 pts in 9 games in the 2011 payoffs. What else should he have done? Put a Mark Messier guaranty on the wall? Score less and block a few more shots? Play goal so the Caps would have actually had an over .890 save % against Tampa? ”

      My opinion exactly. A+.

  8. Thanks for the reminder (not that I needed it) of how much I love Zdeno Chara, from his charity work to his work ethic to his on-ice leadership to looking after his teammates, he is the perfect captain.

  9. As someone who had to hear grumblings through the beginning of their season about her cappy, Eric Staal, this topic is near and dear to my heart. To me it’s easy to be the captain when things are going well. It’s when things are going crappy that your true mettle is tested. I am very anxious to see if anything changes in Washington especially.

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