An Argument against Young NHL Captains: Why Rush?

News: Mike Richards signs for 12 years, $69 million.
I guess it's safe to get your Richards jerseys now.

>>A Philadelphia message board in December 2007

Heh. ... On that day the Flyers doubled down on who they believed Mike Richards to be: Not merely a budding captain at a young age (an honor he'd receive the following summer), but also one they could commit 12 years to.

Three seasons later, he's a Los Angeles King.

When people talk about the New York Islanders captaincy (we touched on this in the morning post, where Frans Nielsen's name also got a good mulling from readers), a few camps campaign for a young player who will "be a fixture" for years to come, rather than another veteran whose time left is less assured. I get that sentiment, but I'm not convinced it's the way to go.

 

 

Very young captains whose stories had happy endings include Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Steve Yzerman -- who himself was nearly traded by Scotty Bowman just before the good times finally rolled in Detroit. (Yes, Yzerman's immortality was far from certain a decade into his captaincy of the Red Wings). Those aren't just top players, they're the top players of their era.

To be fair, Dustin Brown (named captain just before his 24th birthday) sure seems to be working out in Los Angeles. It can and does happen. I just think you need to be very careful -- and don't let the desire for a public mystique override consideration of what can go wrong.

Very young captains whose tracks derailed include Patrick Marleau in San Jose (ultimately yanked), Joe Thornton in Boston (traded after the scapewagon ran over him), and Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay (yanked, but eventually given back). Alex Ovechkin's captaincy hasn't derailed in Washington, but as late as this summer his coach was talking about things he still needed to learn to become the ideal captain. Further back, Brett Hull was named Blues captain at an older 28, not under the "born leader" theory but rather the "he's our fixture" theory. Hull's "C" was yanked three years later. His greatest team success was with other NHL teams that already had multiple experienced leaders ahead of him in the pecking order.

The point is, young stars and great players already carry a mantle -- and burden -- of being the most important focal points on their teams. They don't need another unless you're absolutely certain they're already leaders.

Foisting the symbolic and real responsibilities of the "C" on them may or may not be wise, but it's certainly not necessary. It might even waste an opportunity to allow a young star to hone their game as they mature while also enabling another veteran to take a formal leadership role and apply the "experience" we so often ascribe to guys who have been around the block.

Meanwhile young captains become easy targets for the "wasn't ready / too soon" meme that's so easily avoided.

Before I continue, there are two caveats to remember any time fans and even media discuss who should be next Islanders captain:
1) We're not "in that room," so we're just speculating on what's best for the group dynamic inside those walls.
2) By and large, although it does carry some very real responsibilities, in most cases who has the literal "C" does not make or break a team's fortunes.

 

Leadership vs. Longevity

To point #1 above, I'm not in that room even as media, but I do occasionally hear from those who are that Kyle Okposo carries influence that fans might not pick up on TV or in the seats. His name is brought up often as a candidate for the captaincy, and if there's fire with that smoke I suspect it's for the right reasons, not for the "he's got a five-year deal" reach for longevity. I wouldn't worry much if he were the choice.

Still, longevity is great. Growing with a team is great. But you can't force it. The Flyers forced it with Richards, then regretted it. (Even with that regret, I'm not sure why dumping Richards rather than just yanking his "C" was the way to go. They received a fantastic prospect in return in Brayden Schenn, but it's an immediate downgrade for next season. And Chris Pronger's window to help them to a Cup is not getting any wider. But that's the Flyers.)

There are reasons beyond leadership ability and maturity that weigh into this decision: Such as, who is best positioned to bring and keep this team together?

So if the Islanders elect to go young with the next captain and pass over Mark Streit, it will probably work out alright. (Although people It will probably reflect careful thought both from the coaching staff and the players they guide. Doug Weight's influence as a former captain and teammate and new coach to these guys probably means a lot to this decision.

But as to the NHL trend of tapping your rising star and using the "C" to vault him to a leadership role he's yet to exhibit -- some fans suggest John Tavares for the Islanders -- my feeling is: Why risk harm? Why risk a Vinny or Marleau situation? A young star's day will come, and he'll have earned the "C" if he receives it mid-career. There is no harm in waiting. Meanwhile, a veteran being named captain has no drawbacks. It fits within traditional team hierarchies. Slumps do not get mixed in with "he wasn't ready for this" memes. Young player's allowed to keep learning, older player's allowed to be the steady hand.

And maybe, just maybe, those extra years of experience mean something when the time comes to kick some teammates in the rear.

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