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When it comes to player leadership, how do the Caps measure up?

By Nicole Weissman

It’s not surprising that captaincy in the NHL doesn’t follow a logic fans can understand. Most recently, Chris Clark was retained as captain despite the fact that long-term injuries kept him out of large numbers of games.  When asked why Clark was still serving as captain, players seldom said much beyond pointing out that we, as fans, knew little of what Clark was doing to support the team outside of the public eye.

Since both the Caps organization and the fans considered Alex Ovechkin’s appointment as captain last year to be a big deal, I thought I would take a look at the Caps’ official player leadership, which includes Ovechkin and alternate captains Mike Knuble and Tom Poti, to see how it measures up compared to other teams. 

The NHL permits teams to dress no more than one captain and two alternates, or three alternates and no captain, for any given game. However, within those constraints a lot of teams over the years have chosen to rotate the positions between a number of players. 

This year, Atlanta is the only team with a vacant captain position. Out of 30 teams, 19 have a standard one captain and two alternates, including the Caps. On the other end of the spectrum, Vancouver, St. Louis, and Buffalo are rotating among four different alternate captains, in addition to one captain. I know “we’re all winners,” but that seems like a lot of cooks in the kitchen to me. 

Of the 29 team captains, the average age is 30.5, though there are outliers in both directions, including Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (the youngest, at 22), and Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom (the oldest, at 40). The number of captains who are forwards versus defensemen is roughly proportionate, though Ovie is one of only two left wingers serving as a team captain, along with Dallas’ Brenden Morrow. Since 1948, goaltenders have not been permitted to perform the on-ice duties of team captain (although Vancouver's Roberto Luongo did sport the "C" on his helmet for the last two seasons).

On the whole, the formula seems to look something like this: For teams that have a highly productive and charismatic franchise player, that individual is likely to become captain at a remarkably young age. Other teams go with a veteran. But the season is long, and player leadership is as important as coaching leadership.  So which captains are more likely to provide Stanley Cup-winning leadership, young stars or veterans?

I traced it back about 25 years, and the easy answer is that veteran leadership is the tried and true method. Until the last two years, which saw both Sidney Crosby and Toews captain their teams to Stanley Cups while in their early 20’s, young captains winning Stanley Cups simply didn’t happen. It’s possible that young captains were less common – I suspect that may be the case, but I really don’t know. What I do know is that large numbers of Cup-winning team captains were in their mid-to-late 30’s, and only one or two (names you may recognize, like Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky), were under 30. 

I think Ovie is a fine captain, and this formal leadership position has added another dimension to a player who was already fascinating to watch. That being said, those with a preference for the leadership of alternate captains Mike Knuble and Tom Poti may have a point. Captains’ attitudes tend to be contagious, and I suspect that the pressures of the off-season are better suited to the levelheadedness that comes with experience than the passion that comes with being a young star.

By Nicole Weissman  | November 4, 2010; 8:28 AM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Nicole Weissman  | Tags:  Capitals, Nicole Weissman  
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Comments

"This year, Atlanta is the only team with a vacant captain position. Out of 30 teams, 19 have a standard one captain and two alternates, including the Caps. On the other end of the spectrum, Vancouver, St. Louis, and Buffalo are rotating among four different alternate captains, in addition to one captain. I know “we’re all winners,” but that seems like a lot of cooks in the kitchen to me. "

Actually, the caps are rotating 4 A's. Pots and Knuble at home and Backs and Chimera on the road.

Posted by: dcsportsfan1 | November 5, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

It's funny you should say that -- when I looked it up on washingtoncaps.com it was only showing Poti and Knuble, and I was surprised, because I could have sworn that wasn't the case. Thanks for the correction!

Posted by: nicko | November 5, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

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