I love lists. They cause me to feel like I matter more than I actually do, while also reaffirming my obsessive tendency to make comparisons between everything and everyone. The sports world is an ideal place for lists, because you have quantitative numbers and a new eye test with each game. The topic at hand is the most respected title in all of sports (trailing only Priceline Negotiator worldwide): NHL captain. Wearing the “C” in hockey is an unbelievable honor, and comes with immense responsibilities. The team goes as they go. Their toughness is a reflection of their leader’s. It is the captain’s duty to establish an identity and keep the team in line, regardless of wins and losses.
Which brings up the $10-million question: Who’s the best captain in the league? Before you can even try to answer something so difficult, some ground rules must be set. Best captain does not equal best player. The player’s ability definitely matters, but so do other factors. Tenacity and toughness are vital. I want my captain to muck it up with the big boys in front of the net. Smarts and hockey sense are equally important. Your captain can’t take himself out of a game with an untimely fight or by insulting the ref’s dental plan. And lastly, there are very important immeasurable traits. Which captain just finds a way to produce when the game’s on the line? Which one has his team dialed in like trained mercenaries? And who is the most respected (not necessarily liked, big difference) around the league?
Therefore, a list is definitely in order. After thinking long and hard about this, I have made my selections. Hold on one second (opens window: “BACKES! BACKES! BACKES!”). OK, now we’re ready to begin. We’ll start with the worst at No. 30 and work our way all the way to the very best. The best part about making a list around the holidays is that I know some people will read it out of the goodness of their hearts, in the same way that people actually do attend movies like “Grudge Match” this time of year. Humanity at its finest.
No. 30 Vacant – Columbus Blue Jackets
You’ve got to be kidding me. I was pumped to write this list, figuring I’d get to show Columbus some love, but then realized that coach TODD RICHARDS HASN’T NAMED A CAPTAIN SINCE RICK NASH WAS TRADED! I don’t understand this move at all. You need a leader, somebody like Jack Johnson, who plays big minutes and can mix it up. Even if it’s not an active player, name somebody creative. They should have roots in Ohio, be head over heels for hockey, and … wait a minute. I just got an idea.
30. Mitch Michals – Columbus Blue Jackets
I made it, Grandma! By the way, I was also Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.
29. Andrew Ference – Edmonton Oilers
Another questionable call by the organization that was once the hockey gold standard. Ference was a third-line defenseman on a punishing Bruins squad, but bolted for free agency this year. And he was named captain of his new team almost immediately after. Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it better for team morale if Edmonton picked someone who hadn’t just paid his cab fare from the airport? Then again, the Oilers made an unprecedented move by naming six assistant captains. These must be the six players on their team who actually know where the defensive zone is located.
28. Bryce Salvador – New Jersey Devils
St. Louis fans know him as a solid defenseman with no special attributes. He’s 37, has been injured for many months, yet still has the letter that matters. Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac would have made much more sense. Heck, so would the immortal Jaromir Jagr if his stay at the New Jersey Ritz Carlton didn’t end in March. And yes, Devils fans, you did trade Cam Janssen to acquire your captain (Silvio and Paulie Walnuts are not happy right now).
27. Mark Giordano – Calgary Flames
Giordano’s nickname should be Mr. Mediocre. Five years of service in Calgary, decent production, and flies under everybody’s radar. I’d like to rip this pick, but my buddy summed it up perfectly: “Whatever, it’s the Flames. Good for them, I guess.” Good seats are still available!
26. Ed Jovanovski – Florida Panthers
I may have rushed the attendance joke. Jovanovski was an above-average player on the blue line, but the 37-year-old hurt his hip last season and hasn’t returned since (he must have turned his Life Call device off). The Panthers should have given the “C” to Brian Campbell or young gun Jonathan Huberdeau, both of whom are considerably better and actually in the lineup consistently. After all, their 30 fans per game deserve a captain. (Did they get their marketing plan from the people who ran the Montreal Expos?)
25. Steve Ott – Buffalo Sabres
The good: Ott’s a feisty player willing to get right at the center of the action. The bad: literally everything else. He takes more penalty minutes than most enforcers, embellishes on occasion and isn’t nearly as skilled or respected to be taken seriously as a captain. I can’t stand how he plays. His only saving grace is that he appears to be the only guy on the team who wants to stay in Buffalo. That’s worth a captaincy, I suppose.
24. Dion Phaneuf – Toronto Maple Leafs
Somebody call Phil Kessel, and tell him I found the guy wearing his letter. Phaneuf is a physical presence, but he takes way too many chances and gets beat repeatedly on defense. He makes $6.5 million a year, and was voted the most overrated player in the NHL by his co-workers. This might fly in Florida, but not in the hockey Mecca that is Toronto.
23. Gabriel Landeskog – Colorado Avalanche
We’re at the stage on the list where every choice at captain will be respectable. In the case of Landeskog, the Avalanche are betting heavily on their long-term future. The 21-year-old Swede has tremendous potential, despite struggling at times in his first season. He is the youngest captain in NHL history, but can we honestly be sure he has Crosby/Toews/Yzerman potential? And with how good Nathan MacKinnon has looked, you have to wonder why the Avalanche didn’t just pick a veteran stopgap for a year or two until he’s ready. Landeskog could go either way as a captain.
22. Brian Gionta – Montreal Canadiens
Gionta burst onto the scene in New Jersey, where he was always a reliable player. In 2005-06, he had 48 goals, which is basically his Brady Anderson season (his second-highest mark is 29). Montreal experienced a changing of the guard, and Gionta is a serviceable captain. But there’s the issue of his height. At 5-7, he’s the second-shortest player in the league, and doesn’t exactly have the most intimidating presence. This takes nothing away from his game, but it is worth considering among his “C”-wearing peers (Phew. I avoided all the short jokes there. Especially the one where I hold my hand out by my chin and say, “You have to be this tall to be an NHL captain. That was close.).
21. Mikko Koivu – Minnesota Wild
This is the case of a captain being in permanent possession of the letter. Koivu’s a bruiser at forward, has nine years of experience in Minnesota and produces his fair share of points. But you’d be a fool to think he’s better or more valued than the two native sons (Zack Parise and Ryan Suter) who the Wild signed to humongous contracts last year. Loyalty in pro sports is a lost art, so it’s nice to see Minnesota stick with its Finish warrior. But that may change very soon.
20. Henrik Sedin – Vancouver Canucks
The first example illustrating that skill is not everything in a captain. Henrik Sedin is a great player who has the luxury of playing on a line with a twin brother he shared Simliac with many years (hopefully, I pray) ago. But why do you think Vancouver disappears every postseason? Because its captain goes into hiding at the first sign of physical contact. Both Sedins are full of talent, but neither fits the captain position. My choice in Vancouver would be Ryan Kesler, a Swiss Army knife of a forward who has both grit and a scoring touch. It beats naming your goalie captain, right?
19. Andrew Ladd – Winnipeg Jets
I’m a little shocked to see Ladd this high, too. He came up with Carolina, and eventually landed in Chicago for a few years. By the time Andrew Ladd made his way north of the border, he was a two-time Stanley Cup Champion. The most impressive part of his story isn’t that he parlayed being a complementary piece on a championship team into a hefty bonus – it’s that he lived up to the money. Twenty nine, 28 and 18 goals the past three years, with 2013 being the lockout year. This is your classic “waiting for my chance to shine” story, as all he needed was a team without stars in front of him on the depth chart (a la James Harden). Andrew Ladd found the perfect match in Winnipeg.
18. Claude Giroux – Philadelphia Flyers
Nothing personal, Claude. You’re a top-10 talent, have managed to produce despite the goaltending apocalypse that’s ravaged Philadelphia for decades, and even managed to come back from a potentially career-threatening injury without skipping a beat. While a solid choice, you’re prone to playing on the outside and disengaging when play gets a little too rough. Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds might not have your silky mitts, but they’re bruisers who can will this club through the slugfests they find themselves in repeatedly. Either would be a much better choice than you, G (just to clarify, G is his nickname. Not G Baby. While that might sound cool, I can’t think of a more terrifying nickname for a star player than the little kid who caught a stray bullet during a drive-by in the movie “Hardball.” I know, I’m rambling.).
17. Jamie Benn – Dallas Stars
This shows you how much the standards have raised for the position of captain (if you don’t believe me, just ask Eric Brewer). Benn is a homegrown talent, a rising star and is in the running for highest female following in the league. The Stars were recently viewed as a franchise in disarray, which simply isn’t the case anymore thanks in large part to their young Canadian general. He’s probably a year or two away from cracking the top 15, and possibly much more.
16. John Tavares – New York Islanders
Mixed feelings on Johnny T. His talent is undeniable, and he is in line for plenty of hardware before the young forward hangs up his skates. I also can’t question his toughness, especially after he performed his own version of a root canal in between whistles earlier this year. But I don’t know if he’s capable of guiding the Islanders out of the foul mess that invokes flashbacks of Andy Dufresne crawling through a sewer. Last year’s playoff appearance was great, but it looks more and more like a fluke each game. Tavares has to mean more than his stat line to move up on this list.
That’s it for the first part. The 15 best leaders in the NHL today are up next.