After more than three years of debate about who should be captain of the New York Rangers, they reached the Eastern Conference final and got within six wins of the Stanley Cup without one.
Players never discussed who would have hoisted the Cup had they won it.
“We would have figured that out, though,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “Trust me.”
If the Rangers win it all this season for the first time since 1994, it’ll be Trouba, who was named the Original Six franchise’s 28th captain this past summer.
NHL teams are back to putting big value in an old-school hockey tradition: The rebuilding Montreal Canadiens gave the ‘C’ to Nick Suzuki and the Philadelphia Flyers are expected to have a captain at some point after new coach John Tortorella learns more about his players.
“It’s a great hierarchy,” said Jordan Staal, who’s going into his third season as the Carolina Hurricanes' captain. “Just to kind of know that that’s the guy that the coach can run things through or whatever it is if he needs to and really kind of be the first guy that takes the brunt on on certain things and maybe eases it for some younger guys.”
No sport makes a bigger deal of having a singular captain than hockey, a prestigious job that not only entails being the point person for coaches and management but also talking to referees on the ice and usually taking the biggest role in the locker room when it comes to answering tough questions.
“The big thing is you’ve got to be on it at all times: before practice, during practice, after, during games,” said Brady Tkachuk, who became captain of the Ottawa Senators early last season. “And I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge, but it’s just something that I was fortunate to learn from, and lean on, other guys.”
Five years ago when the Vegas Golden Knights became the league’s 31st franchise, they opted not to name a captain at first. They were even closer than the Rangers to a big decision, reaching the Stanley Cup Final and being three victories away.
Even though injuries limited Steven Stamkos to under three minutes of ice time during the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2020 bubble run to the championship, the longtime captain put on his uniform to accept the trophy from Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Philadelphia has been without a captain since trading Claude Giroux to Florida in March, and Tortorella has said he would take his time to figure out who’s next. With the Flyers not expected to contend this season for their first Cup championship since 1975, it’s really no rush.
“Eventually you want to put someone in that leadership role,” said Cam Atkinson, one of the leading candidates to get the ‘C’ with Philadelphia. “I think eventually we’ll need a captain. But at the same time, there’s a lot more issues at stake for us to figure out before electing a captain.”
Sometimes internal issues can make the value of a captain work the other way. Before opening training camp, the Winnipeg Jets stripped Blake Wheeler of the “C” and committed to not having one player in that role this season. First-year coach Rick Bowness said at the time, “With a new staff, it’s a good time to look at changing the leadership of the room.”
It’s rare — but not unheard of — for a player to lose the captaincy and stay with a team. It happened twice with San Jose over the past 15 years, with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton each getting the ‘C’ taken away. Even two-time Stanley Cup-winning captain Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings lost it.
Those teams quickly moved to name a new captain, and Vegas eventually picked one in Mark Stone, who was not part of the team that got to the final. Stone told teammates he still wanted their input on topics, but he’s keenly aware that the designation is meaningful.
“It’s not just one guy — you got a whole leadership group of guys,” Stone said. “(But) I guess if you look at winning the Stanley Cup, I don’t know when the last team has won without one.”
That drought is now at 50 years since the Boston Bruins in 1972.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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