Young Guns: The NHL Trend of Youthful Captains

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In their 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, the surging Colorado Avalanche picked up a beautiful insurance marker from Gabriel Landeskog, the youngest captain in the NHL. Not only is he the youngest captain in the NHL today, but the youngest ever in NHL history, eclipsing the previous record holder, Sidney Crosby. On top of that, he scored his goal after blowing past Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin, who earned the “C” at age 24, and is part of a slew of young NHL captains in the League right now. While many teams look to the aged veteran to lead the team, many have decided that a breath of fresh air is what their team needs in the captaincy. Not all these young captains have worked out, but many of them have been successful.

So what makes a team pick a young player to lead their squad? Pure skill alone does not a captain make. There are plenty of young guys out there who may the most talented player on their team, but don’t have the maturity or the confidence to deal with the oppressive crush of the media, the fan base and the daily grind of NHL hockey life. A captain must be the cool head in the room that calms down a nervous bench, or fires up a dead locker room. Scoring points alone won’t cut it when the cards are down. They need to avoid off-ice temptations of drinking, partying, and other activities that would have them watching the games from drug rehab.

Along with Landeskog, who is a mere 19 years old, a plethora of teams have decided to give the “C” to a junior member of the team. Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins was also 19 when he took the reins from Mario Lemieux, making him the youngest captain in the NHL (Landeskog edged his record by a mere 11 days) and the 2nd youngest captain to win the Stanley Cup. Many had doubts about the leadership of Dustin Brown(23 when he became captain) of the Los Angeles Kings, but a Stanley Cup win on the back of his strong performance quieted the critics. Another young captain with a Cup (two now) under his belt is Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews. Toews is known around the league as “Captain Serious,” as he rarely shows emotion on the ice and is fully dedicated to his game. Being serious is a trend you see in young captains, and it’s what sets them apart from other talented players on the team. Toews’ linemate Patrick Kane is equally (if not more) skilled, but does not have the maturity that Toews brings to the room. Maturity like that is what gave New York Islanders star forward John Tavares (age 23) the “C” on his sweater. He is another youngster that has the weight of the franchise on his shoulders, and his calm demeanor allows him to carry the load.

Now, not every young captain has met success, and two of them are playing in the Metropolitan Division this season. Alexander Ovechkin is easily one of the best players in the NHL, and you’d think he’d be a shoe-in for a leadership role in the Washington Capitals dressing room, but many in the organization have expressed concern that his leadership role doesn’t translate to the other players on the team. An aggressive, boisterous player, Ovechkin can carry the team on his shoulders, however, he hasn’t been able to spurn on his teammates to achieve greatness without him. The team seems to live and die by his performance, and when he’s slumping, the whole team looks flat.

Speaking of “Greatest Player in the World,” Claude Giroux has recently come under scrutiny for his leadership. Last season’s Philadelphia Flyers were a shambles, and the media circus that followed them seemed to be a major distraction to Giroux, who had a mediocre season. He has followed it up by having the worst start of his career (1 goal in 16 games). Philadelphia’s woes are by no means the fault of Giroux’s awful start, but this team is certainly missing the strong voice they once had in Chris Pronger. While Pronger was a polarizing figure, he certainly got the point across and made sure everyone was on the same page.

There are quite a few other potential young guns who have been overlooked for various reasons on multiple NHL teams. Most notably, Steven Stamkos, who consistently is at the top of the league in goals scored. While one can speculate on the locker room dynamics of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it seems as though the top brass there feel that other veterans on the team are more suited to run things until Stamkos is ready to take the reins. The Edmonton Oilers have a full stable of young stars who will be the future of the franchise, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Taylor Hall wearing the “C.” It will be interesting to see which teams follow the pattern of young NHL captains and which stay with the tried and true veteran.