Last Tuesday, on the eve of his sophomore season in the NHL and at the ripe old age of 19, the Colorado Avalanche named Gabriel Landeskog their captain.
To say that Landeskog is the youngest captain in NHL history sounds like a huge deal, but he is only the most dramatic example of a trend. The four youngest (permanent) captains in NHL history have all been appointed in the 21st century, three of them in the age of this CBA. Across the League, teenage captains are still a comparative rarity, but appointing a captain at 22 or 23 is quite common. Mike Richards, Rick Nash, and Dustin Brown were all crowned at that age. Raise the limit another two years, and you can throw in Phaneuf and Ovechkn, Weber and Getzlaf, the Staal called Eric. If there was ever a time when captaincy was supposed to reflect wisdom, experience, and a deep knowledge of the League honed over thousands of games, that time is over and done. Leadership isn’t something that’s earned anymore. It’s either assumed, as an intrinsic character trait, or conferred, as a time-inverted reward for future performance.
The NHL is getting younger, or at least its stars are. The increasing youth of captains reflects the increasing youth of stars and franchise faces, the players fans most want to see. Other than the season’s hot UFAs and the Detroit Red Wings, fans seldom place their hopes for the team’s success on veteran players anymore. Some of us are more desperate and irrational than others, but we are everywhere dreaming of teenagers these days.
Some of the surge in not just NHL-ready but NHL-gifted teenagers is probably improvements in scouting, training, and conditioning. Hockey scouting has become extraordinarily good at identifying offensive talent in draft-age players. Junior teams have become extraordinarily efficient in inculcating professional-quality systems, skills, and dispositions. And although 18-year-olds today often have the same lanky awkwardness they’ve always had, they’re far more likely to have already adopted the dietary and fitness regimens necessary to build the lumpen muscle of full-size pros. Young players are more physically and mentally prepared for the NHL now than ever before, and therefore, it is perfectly logical that more of them should make it more quickly.
Some of it, also, is improvements in our understanding. It used to be assumed that a hockey player’s peak age was somewhere around 30. That might be true, when all positions and all facets of the game are taken into account, but recent research suggests that an NHLer’s points-per-game rate tends to peak at around 25. Shots-per-season peaks even earlier than that, around 23. Until the recent explosion in the cost of RFA contracts, young offensive forwards offered GMs the absolute best possible goals-to-dollars rate available anywhere in the game. There are some excellent practical incentives in modern hockey to put more weight on thinner shoulders.
But there is another layer still, the layer of hope. With thirty teams and a ridiculous amount of parity, the NHL is a league where the Stanley Cup is difficult to achieve yet never seems all that far away. The chances of winning in any given season is slim to none, and even a playoff appearance is far from a certainty, but similarly teams have been known to turn from bottom-feeder to Finals favorite in the space between October and February. Hockey fans across the continent live in a state of ardent hope that is far from realistic but also not entirely irrational. The hockey gods are capricious beings. Any year could, possibly, turn out to be yours.
With so many teams needing to capitalize on these slim hopes in order to sell their seats, teams invest a lot of PR in Hope Players. Some teams- Edmonton, Colorado- are almost entirely composed of Hope Players, but almost every team has one or two. A guy, 2-4 years into his career, who’s overperformed his age group and/or draft pedigree. Some of them are the vaunted first-overall picks, the Stamkoses and Tavareses and Kanes, for it goes without saying that every first overall pick immediately comes to the NHL to be the Hope Player for his team. Others are more surprising or took a little bit longer to get there- Subban in Montreal, Giroux in Philadelphia, Skinner in Carolina. Nearly every franchise is, to one degree or another, selling a young player to their fans on the promise of his future.
The Hope Player on any team is always most precious one. The fans and media will prize him more highly than more established talents. They’ll rapturously compare him to superstars of bygone days, saying, he could be the Next Next One, the one who will be great forever, the one who will do it all. Your Hope Player is the one you would never trade for anything less than Crosby, and some of the crazier members of your fan base wouldn’t even do that deal. Somehow, through the magical alchemy of skill and youth, he becomes better than he actually is. Only a Hope Player is ever sincerely compared to Bobby Orr.
The Hope Players, the youth movements, they represent how much of hockey is played in the future. On some nights, this game is 50% dreams. When we see these boys skate, we’re half awed by what they are doing and half by what we can imagine them doing. At 20, 21, 22, every guy is a guy on the upswing, and when the shots are going in and the points are piling up, we can imagine an upswing that never ends. Even a player as remarkable as Landeskog doesn’t get the captaincy based on the really good player he is now. He gets it based on a million Coloradan dreams of what he could be at 25.
A Hope Player, really, is just a good player who hasn’t disappointed you yet. Or more than that, hasn’t been able to disappoint you yet. As fickle as hockey fans can be, they have a certain stubborn optimism when it comes to the young players they had dreams for. For a couple of years, all their small failures are nothing more than future victories in the making. All their scoring droughts are just lessons being learned, all their injuries promise full recoveries, any failure to meet a previous record is just developing their two-way game. We can be surprisingly patient with players we see as becoming rather than being. Hope takes a long time to erode.
Most of them won’t actually become what they are becoming, or at least not what we thought they were becoming. It will take us a few years to notice, but eventually it will sink in: the upswing is over, this is the plateau. By 28, he’s gotten hurt and gotten expensive. Suddenly you’re paying ten times as much for 70-80% of the scoring, he’s got a bad shoulder, a knee brace, and a lingering concussion issue. He’s had bad blood with a teammate or a coach, flamed out in a playoff series or three. No longer a kid, he’s got kids of his own, and when trade talk comes up he worries about schools and real estate values. The hope evaporates, replaced by the slightly grim, battle-scarred dedication of a career NHLer.
There was a time, I’m told, when hockey loved those stolid veterans more than anything, the lunchpail guys who’d paid their dues and someone else’s besides, who’d seen hard times and done bad things, who had been disappointed and disappointments both. In the myths, we are told that leadership, the right to speak in the room and have your voice heard, comes from that experience, the knowledge of being in hockey that can only be bought with time and blood.
But, I dunno, maybe that’s an Original Six kind of idea, forged in the days when veterans held on to roster spots with ferocious talons and beat challenging rookies out of the room with sticks. Nowadays, with Cups so far away and hope so precious to everyone, who wants to be led by the knowledge of pain and losing? As much as people will talk about a Hope Player now as though they want him to be the face of their franchise forever, I don’t buy it. We don’t want the player himself to represent our team for twenty years. We want Hope to be our captain. And when this particular guy no longer gives it to us, we will turn our eyes away in search of some other messianic teenager.