The state of the captain’s ‘C’ in the NHL

Sports

The Jack Eichel saga in Buffalo has been quite the soap opera. But nothing in that saga was as odious and contentious as when the Sabres announced they were stripping their franchise player of his captaincy.

“From our perspective and my perspective, I feel the captain is the heartbeat of your team,” GM Kevyn Adams said. “And we’re in a situation, from where we were in the past and where we are now, that we felt that we needed to address that.”

This was the biggest point of demarcation between Eichel and his team. The heartbeat of the franchise had flatlined. The “C” was unstitched. The ship sails on without its captain.

It shouldn’t matter than he won’t play for the franchise again. The Montreal Canadiens have said time and again that Shea Weber is likely never to play in the NHL again, yet he remains the captain, because he remains with the franchise. This public declaration that Eichel had been stripped of his captaincy was the Sabres kicking sand in his face.

The captaincy in the NHL means something. It’s important. Whether it indicates a player serves a vital function behind closed doors or it’s merely symbolic of a player’s stature, there’s only one captain. When a team makes the call to designate one — or denigrate one, as Buffalo did — it reverberates through the franchise and the fan base. Especially today.

“The role of the captain has almost a greater responsibility today because the world has changed,” Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland told me this week. “There’s more people covering the teams. There’s social media. And there’s certainly the pressure to perform in games. There’s more demands and there’s more scrutiny.”

Two teams named new captains before the season: Boone Jenner was named the new leader of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Mark Giordano was named the first captain for the Seattle Kraken. Both decisions were fascinating in their own ways.

Jenner was called “the ultimate leader” by teammate Gustav Nyquist. He’s also signed for two fewer seasons than defenseman Zach Werenski, who could have been asked to rise to the challenge of the captaincy. “I think anyone that has been here in this organization and been around Boone kind of knew that was going to happen eventually, at some point,” Werenski said.

At least Jenner is signed through 2025-26. There’s a chance Giordano may not even be with the Kraken past the trade deadline, depending on the fortunes of their inaugural season. Yet they handed him the captaincy anyway.

The Kraken could have opted not to name a captain. The Vegas Golden Knights didn’t name one in their inaugural season, and didn’t have one until Mark Stone grabbed the captaincy in January. Coach Gerard Gallant opted to do the same thing in his first season with the New York Rangers, naming six alternate captains for a franchise that hasn’t had one since defenseman Ryan McDonagh was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018. They’re one of five teams to open the season without a captain: The others are the Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, Giordano’s former team.

The Flames are a curious case. Matthew Tkachuk would seem like a natural for the captaincy: He’s the “heartbeat” of the team, after all. But he’s got an uncertain contract status as a pending restricted free agent. He’s also just 23 years old, and the argument could be made that he’s got some growing up to do.

The fact is that captaincy is a veteran’s title to hold. The average age of NHL captains in the 2021-22 season is 31 years and 173 days old. The youngest is the Devils’ Nico Hischier (22) and the oldest is Giordano (38).

Captains have only gotten older over the last two decades. According to the NHL Stats & Information team, the average age of captains in 2010-11 was 30 years and 249 days old. In 2000-01, the average age of a captain was 30 years and 155 days old.

There are, of course, exceptions. Connor McDavid was the youngest player in NHL history to be given the “C” when Edmonton named him captain at 19 years and 266 days old in 2016.

“Obviously, someone here made the decision to make Connor the captain,” said Holland, who inherited McDavid as captain when he arrived in Edmonton in 2019. “Generational player. Generational talent. But when do you do make that decision? With that ‘C’ comes more pressure.”

Holland remembered when the Red Wings named Steve Yzerman captain at 21 years old.

“You know you’re making a decision that goes beyond you. But [GM] Jim Devellano and [coach] Jacques Demers knew he was the guy they were building the franchise around. They had seen enough,” said Holland. “At first, you just play. You lead by example. But then you grow into the responsibilities of being a captain, like standing up in front of the group or pulling a player aside to say something to him. When you’re older, and you’re more comfortable, I like to say that you own stock in the company.”

A general manager since 1997, Holland didn’t have to make too many tough calls on the captaincy. He inherited Yzerman with the Detroit Red Wings, who was then succeeded by Nicklas Lidstrom.

“That took about two minutes to decide,” said Holland with a laugh.

The only close race for the captaincy was when Lidstrom retired and the “C” was going to go to either Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg. The captain would be Zetterberg, but he and Datsyuk would be co-leaders.

When Zetterberg retired, Holland opted not to give anyone on the Red Wings the captaincy. Yzerman arrived as GM and waited two years to give the “C” to Dylan Larkin.

“We were clearly in a rebuilding cycle,” Holland said. “You look at the team, and you see where you’re at. Are we in a rebuild mode? Are we in a down cycle? Is there a great young player we’re going to put the ‘C’ on or are we going to wait a few years? Then you have to factor in whether he’s ready for it, or if we’re putting too much pressure on him.”

What Holland has seen in the last two decades are captains relieving that pressure by sharing the responsibilities with teammates.

“The captain is the captain. But there’s also now a leadership group with the captain. There had been leadership groups before, but it would always defer to the captain. Now it would be a group of four or five players meeting with the head coach, instead of one player,” said Holland.

Perhaps it’s symbolic of the times that the Tampa Bay Lightning bucked tradition in 2020 and in 2021 when they won the Stanley Cup. Rather than having captain Steven Stamkos make a solo trip to grab the chalice from Gary Bettman, the Lightning arrived en masse, as a team, to collect it together.

But Stamkos is still the Tampa captain. Just like Jenner, Giordano and McDavid are, and Yzerman and Zetterberg were, captains for their respective teams.

Just like Jack Eichel was the captain of the Buffalo Sabres.

Until he wasn’t.

Jersey Fouls

From reader Kevin Wall comes this Seattle Kraken jersey:

This Protest Jersey rather emphatically renounces Nashville Predators fandom while straining the limits of name-plate verbiage. But shouldn’t this be No. 19, in honor of fellow ex-Pred Calle Jarnkrok?


Three things about the PHF

1. I had a chance to speak with Tyler Tumminia recently. In August, she became the commissioner of the National Women’s Hockey League. In September, the NWHL no longer existed by name, as it was rechristened as the Premier Hockey Federation — a league that will be streamed exclusively on ESPN+.

“We had a lot of change. Not only myself [coming in to this role], but all the teams are now privately owned. We had to create a process and a governance model, which is now essentially a mirror image of the NHL,” she said. “We needed constitutions and bylaws, the fundamental core of any business. We needed a new era of ‘no labels, no limits’ and an interior that matched the exterior when it comes to change.”

It’s an emphatic rebranding. But noticeably missing from the new moniker is any gender identification. Tumminia has said this edit is meant to put an emphasis on the players’ talent and skill — “It’s not like they’re female phenomenal. Just phenomenal,” she told The Associated Press — but it allows the league to be more inclusive by respecting the gender identities of players, hockey operations personnel and fans.

It’s hard to ignore the link between the rebranding and the league’s decision to revise its transgender and non-binary inclusion policy. According to ESPN’s Katie Barnes, there is now an allowance for transgender men to medically transition while remaining part of the PHF, as the new policy states they remain eligible if taking testosterone for medical transition purposes as long as they get a therapeutic use exemption from the federation. The PHF policy is one of the first in a professional league to specifically address the eligibility of non-binary athletes.

Tumminia said the PHF worked with Athlete Ally, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ athletic advocacy group, on the policy.

“Our policy is quite progressive, and we feel very comfortable about that. Our athletes genuinely are very inclusive, and they want to be known for that inside the locker room. It was important for us to take the time to develop that policy, take the time to get educated. Policymaking takes time. Hopefully, the fan base is proud of it too,” Tumminia said.

2. This PHF season is taking place during an Olympic year, when women’s hockey is at the forefront in the United States after the national team won gold in 2018. Tumminia expects to see an uptick for her league because of that spotlight on the sport.

“The data always shows that. Historically, during an Olympic year, the sport has a lot of eyeballs on it. That’s what we’re hoping and what we’re already seeing. It’s only a benefit, going into an Olympic year,” she said.

But the players who will be competing in Beijing are not the players who will be competing in the PHF. National team players from the U.S. and Canada formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association in May 2019. That came after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded and after many big-name players left the NWHL, voicing dissatisfaction with the way the league was managed. Then-NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan accused those players of attempting to “destroy the business” that she had helped build for them.

That bitterness lingers years later. One prominent former Canadian national team player told ESPN that she “along with others have been trying to distance and disassociate with the league” for years. Earlier this year, the PWHPA made noise about creating a league of its own.

What’s the state of this relationship with national team players for Tumminia?

“We continue to have open conversations with the PWHPA, and I think we’re having more conversations than we’ve ever had before,” she said.

Whether the ice can be thawed between the sides is anyone’s guess. But Tumminia said she wanted the focus on the PHF and its rights deal, not on who isn’t playing for the federation.

“We’re rolling up our sleeves and trying to grow the actual sport. We’re trying to move it going forward,” she said.

3. Whenever the topic of “moving forward” comes up for women’s hockey, so does the topic of expansion.

“I know, I know,” Tumminia said, laughing. “I keep saying this: My five-year outlook … honestly, I’d love East Coast and West Coast divisions. I really would. And I get a lot of pressure from the West Coast.”

Tumminia said the next expansion for the PHF will be in Canada, where the last team added to the league — the Toronto Six — resides. But she said there are many more locations that want a chance to join the federation.

“At least once a week, I’ve been having conversations with potential owners about different markets, like Washington, D.C., and Philly and Pittsburgh. These seem to be the markets that people have the most interest in,” she said. “But there’s also a danger, right? I want to grow really quick and really fast, but we also have to make sure there’s [a league] around out there to expand. It’s a delicate balance. But the economics play a huge factor in all of it.”

So what does the next PHF expansion depend on?

“Deep pockets,” Tumminia said. “Deeeep pockets,”


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Squad goals

How great has the hockey been to start the season? More specifically, how great has the offensive hockey been to start the season?

Through 51 games, teams are averaging 3.09 goals per game. That’s thanks to a torrid 22.2% power-play conversion rate. Nineteen teams are averaging three or more goals per game, and 10 teams are averaging four or more goals per game. Noted offensive juggernaut the St. Louis Blues are the second-best offensive team in the NHL at five goals per game! More, please!

Loser: Weird rules

My favorite play of the season so far was when Mikael Backlund of the Calgary Flames cleared the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty … except the puck never cleared the glass, thanks to Matthew Tkachuk batting it down with his stick from the bench. Which is awesome but also apparently a minor for interference. I say again: There should be exceptions to every penalty on the grounds of ingenuity and/or hilarity.

Winner: Marcus Foligno

That game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night was wild, wasn’t it? All the attention was on the Kyle Connor offside call on the Jets’ empty-netter that opened the door for Joel Eriksson Ek to tie the game and win it in overtime. But it was Marcus Foligno’s power-play goal in the third that cut the Jets’ lead to one goal. And he had one of the most poignant postgame comments of the year about the late Tom Kurvers and how he was looking after the team that night.

Loser: Missing the Marcus

That said … c’mon, that Superman punch completely missed its Brenden Dillon-sized target. If you’re going to gimmick up your fight, you best not miss. Kevin Bieksa weeps at this poor execution. Next time, Foligno: More Roman Reigns, less Jimmy Uso.

Winner: Buffalo Sabres

Yes, I know: If the season were 10 games long, the Sabres would have a dynasty. Like when they won eight of their first 10 games in 2019-20. Or had points in eight of 12 games in 2018-19. But they’re 3-0-0 to start this season, and that’s just lovely. The crowds are sparse, and their goalie is 40, but they’re outhustling teams under coach Don Granato.

To be able to wallow in the delusion of “maybe if the Sabres play well enough, Eichel will want to stick around!” is truly a glorious thing, even if for a moment.

Loser: ‘Ewing Theory’

One of Bill Simmons’ greatest hits on Page 2 was the concept of the “Ewing Theory,” wherein Patrick Ewing’s teams “inexplicably played better” when Ewing wasn’t on the court. During these torrid [checks schedule] three games for the Sabres, some fans have wondered if maybe Jack Eichel was the problem all along?

While admittedly cheeky, that theory does an absolute disservice to the work that previous coach Ralph Krueger didn’t do during his tenure.

Winner: Looking sharp

Patrik Laine arrived at the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ game to tell Bill and Ted that one day they’ll write a song that saves the world. Or to be a henchman in a 1990s “Die Hard” knoc-off. Or to continue his slow morphing into the Dril avatar.

Whatever the case, good luck to the rest of the NHL players attempting to own the relaxed dress code championship belt.

Loser: Looking terrible

The Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens have gotten off the blocks like me in a race against Usain Bolt.

Blackhawks fans are demanding coach Jeremy Colliton‘s job, after it became apparent that throwing Marc-Andre Fleury at a porous defensive system was like putting some duct tape on a breaking dam. Meanwhile, the Canadiens are generating more headlines about the next destination of their general manager than they are scoring chances.


Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Kudos to Emily Kaplan and the design team for this look inside the Seattle Kraken‘s new home arena.

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