Mark Messier was the quintessential hockey captain – in fact, the quintessential captain in all of North American sports in recent memory. The epitome of classy, confident, hard-nosed leadership for Stanley Cup winning squads in Edmonton and New York, Messier backed up those qualities with All-Star level performance. Through character and example, Messier was a captain that men––with perhaps the exception of Petr Nedved––would follow to hell and back.
Thinking about the ideal hockey captain leads to a related question: Can a team have success while being led––for any extended period of time––by a “character” player without much talent to back his “intangibles”? This season, the management of the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes weighed in on that question with a resounding “NO”, with the Caps unceremoniously shipping off replacement level captain Chris Clark (0.2 GVT) to the Blue Jackets, thus allowing Alex Ovechkin to ascend to the captaincy, while the Hurricanes requested sub-replacement level Rod Brind’Amour (-2.5 GVT) to surrender his “C” to franchise player Eric Staal.
It’s not that a team has to be led by one of its best players, but it certainly helps to not have that disconnect of: “Exactly who are we following?” It helps not to have the fans and media question it. Further, it helps not having the head coach forced to give undue playing time to a fading star just due to this status.
On a deeper level, having a subpar captain may be a window into the mind of your favorite team’s management. If they think that guy is still good, what does that say about their overall talent evaluation abilities? Or it may point to deficiencies among your young stars. Why doesn’t Patrick Kane have at least an “A” on his sweater, if not a “C”? If Craig Rivet is your captain, does it mean that Derek Roy or Jason Pominville aren’t worthy leaders?
Let’s take a look at how the captains of the NHL rank by Goals Versus Threshold, including what percentage of their team’s GVT they account for. Keeping in mind that the captaincies are vacant in Montreal, Toronto and Atlanta, acknowledged “virtual captain” Brian Gionta is listed below for the Canadiens, while Dion Phaneuf and Ron Hainsey were selected for this comparison from among the Maple Leafs’ and Thrashers’ assistant captains.
OGVT: Goals Versus Threshold, Offense
DGVT: Goals Versus Threshold, Defense
SGVT: Goals Versus Threshold, Shootout
GVT: Goals Versus Threshold (Total)
%Team: Player’s percentage of team’s total GVT
NHL Captains by Goals Versus Threshold
Rank Name Team Pos OGVT DGVT SGVT GVT %Team
1 Alex Ovechkin WSH F 26.9 3.9 -0.7 30.1 16%
2 Sidney Crosby PIT F 22.0 3.7 3.8 29.5 22%
3 Jonathan Toews CHI F 9.3 4.9 2.8 17.0 10%
4 Mikko Koivu MIN F 10.5 3.8 0.9 15.2 17%
5 Nicklas Lidstrom DET D 6.4 8.5 0.0 14.9 12%
6 Daniel Alfredsson OTT F 11.0 4.0 -0.2 14.8 15%
7 Zdeno Chara BOS D 5.9 8.7 -0.2 14.5 13%
8 Rick Nash CBJ F 9.2 3.6 0.9 13.7 20%
9 Eric Staal CAR F 10.9 3.2 -0.5 13.5 14%
10 Mike Richards PHI F 9.7 3.4 -0.7 12.4 10%
11 Jarome Iginla CGY F 9.5 3.0 -1.0 11.5 11%
12 Jamie Langenbrunner NJD F 6.3 4.7 0.1 11.1 8%
13 Roberto Luongo VAN G 10.2* 0.3 -0.4 10.1 6%
14 **Brian Gionta MTL F 6.3 2.5 1.1 9.9 10%
15 Rob Blake SJS D 4.9 4.4 0.0 9.3 6%
16 Vincent Lecavalier TBL F 8.9 1.5 -1.2 9.2 13%
17 Bryan McCabe FLA D 5.3 3.4 0.0 8.7 11%
18 Scott Niedermayer ANA D 6.4 1.7 0.0 8.1 9%
19 Dustin Brown LAK F 6.6 2.5 -1.2 7.8 6%
20 **Dion Phaneuf TOR F 2.4 5.4 0.0 7.7 12%
21 **Ron Hainsey ATL D 2.5 2.2 0.0 7.7 8%
22 Jason Arnott NSH F 4.1 2.7 0.3 7.0 6%
23 Shane Doan PHX F 4.6 2.6 -0.7 6.4 5%
24 Brenden Morrow DAL F 4.9 2.0 -0.5 6.3 6%
25 Chris Drury NYR F 2.4 3.0 0.0 5.4 5%
26 Eric Brewer STL D 1.6 0.7 0.0 2.4 2%
27 Craig Rivet BUF D -0.5 2.2 0.0 1.7 1%
28 Adam Foote COL D -1.8 2.9 0.0 1.2 1%
29 Doug Weight NYI F -0.1 0.9 -0.3 0.6 1%
30 Ethan Moreau EDM F -1.2 0.3 0.0 -0.9 -2%
*Goaltender GVT shown
**Montreal, Toronto and Atlanta have vacant captaincies
While varying in age from early twenties to late thirties, not much quibbling is possible with the 1st-11th ranked captains above––Ovechkin, Crosby, Toews, Koivu, Lidstrom, Alfredsson, Chara, Nash, Staal, Richards and Iginla––as they are all established veteran stars ranking no lower than third on their teams in GVT. Credible choices for now, but with mantles that should soon be passed off to younger stars are 12th ranked Jamie Langenbrunner, 15th ranked Rob Blake, 17th ranked Bryan McCabe, 22nd ranked Jason Arnott, 23rd ranked Shane Doan and 25th ranked Chris Drury. While the Devils have 25 year old Zach Parise at 21.1 GVT to logically take over from 34 year old Langenbrunner, and while 25 year old Joe Pavelski (9.2 GVT) is making a case for the Sharks’ captaincy with his postseason heroics, the identity of the Panthers’, Coyotes’ and Rangers’ replacements seem less certain. The Canucks should have many young stars to choose from for their captain – the problem with current captain Luongo not being his contribution, but the fact that he’s a goaltender. And regardless of championship pedigree, the Scott Niedermayer as-captain-of-any-team era should come to an end; 24 year old Ryan Getzlaf (12.8 GVT) has been waiting to take over from the fading 36 year old.
Those are the relatively clear cut cases – teams that have made relatively reasonable choices at captain, at least given the available talent (which may be another issue). Then, there are the other teams – none of whom are still playing, if that’s any indication.
The problems with Vincent Lecavalier as captain are both with relatively mediocre contribution and questionable leadership. Perhaps one reason to finally find the elusive trading partner to take Lecavalier’s albatross of a contract would be to allow for a new captain. Has anyone heard of Steven Stamkos (21.1 GVT)?
25 year old Dustin Brown––already a veteran captain––is known for his league-leading ability to draw penalties. And unfortunately, not much else. A below average skater at even strength (-0.26 Even Strength Total rating), Brown strikes at least this outsider as having the hangdog presence of a Lee Dewyze. Only 6th on the Kings in GVT, it’s worth wondering if 20 year old Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty might not ascend to the throne in the near future. Down the road, a Chris Clark-esque trade may be in order to enable that transition.
31 year old Brenden Morrow of the Stars checks in at +0.20 ESTR, better supporting a mediocre GVT. A somewhat puzzling addition to Team Canada for the Vancouver games, Morrow’s energetic play has justified his status – for now.
The ship sailed on former 5th overall pick Eric Brewer long ago. Not only among the bottom five captains by GVT, the 30 year old St. Louis captain is second worst to Moreau by ESTR, at -0.84. Is there any reason why 23 year old sparkplug T.J. Oshie (9.8 GVT) wouldn’t be a far better choice?
Buffalo’s Craig Rivet’s value to his team has dropped off dramatically over the last season or two. His GVT ranked 15th on the Sabres; his -0.55 ESTR was 3rd worst among captains. A third pairing defenseman coming into the last year of his contract, Buffalo would be wise to let Rivet skate to another team for 2011-12. It’s possible that Rivet’s effectiveness has been sapped by a shoulder injury; even so, who expects the 35 year old to be a major contributor going forward, post-surgery?
Adam Foote is a veteran of two Stanley Cup winners for Colorado, certainly giving him some cache with the Avs. While still average at -0.01 ESTR, clearly the 38 year old’s days of effectiveness are numbered. Luckily, the Avalanche has plenty of young talent to choose from for their next captain, when the time comes.
Similar to Foote, the Islanders’ Doug Weight performed significantly better by ESTR––a well above average +0.34––than by GVT. As with Colorado, New York should be able to choose from among many young stars for their next leader.
There’s no surprise that the worst captain in the NHL comes from the worst team in the NHL, yet another indication of problems throughout the organization. Normally, it wouldn’t be difficult to make up a large portion of the worst team’s GVT…except when you perform at a sub-replacement level. If their captain can be chosen on something other than Pat Quinn’s concept of true grit, perhaps a Dustin Penner (12.9 GVT) or Ales Hemsky (5.7 GVT in 22 games) will eventually become the Oilers’ captain.
Finally, there are the three teams without captains: Montreal, Toronto and Atlanta. Whether it’s silliness, snobbery or indecision keeping these teams from naming official captains, it seems counterproductive. If Gionta is the de facto captain of the Habs, he should get to wear the C. If Phaneuf is Brian Burke’s answer to Chris Pronger, he should wear the C. And whoever is deemed the Thrashers young player of the future should try their C on for size as well.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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