Pop quiz: What do the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Edmonton Oilers, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Columbus Blue Jackets have in common (besides the fact that everyone likes to make fun of their hometowns)?
I’ll give you a hint. The answer is captaincy, or lack thereof.
The thing about captaincy in the NHL is that it’s not a requirement. Most, if not all, teams have gone through periods without a permanent captain. The Minnesota Wild had a 2-month rotation system for their captaincy until the 2009-2010 season, when they officially gave Mikko Koivu the C. Tampa Bay named Paul Ysebaert Captain only after much feet-dragging on the part of then-GM Phil Esposito, who to this day maintains that permanent Captaincy is a flawed system in and of itself.
In his book “Wearing the C,” Ross Bernstein quotes Esposito as saying, “What did it mean for me to wear the C? Not a f*cking thing! … I don’t believe in having a captain on a team, no kidding. Only because they say you have to have something, I’d have three assistants, that’s it.”
Columbus hasn’t had a permanent captain since they traded Rick Nash. Arguably, their two most standout candidates for the position are forward Brandon Dubinsky and defenseman Jack Johnson. Neither player has been in Columbus long; both were traded to the Blue Jackets in 2012. After breaking up with Nash, the Blue Jackets played captain-less for a season and surprised everyone by pulling together a spectacular bid for the playoffs in the latter half. And though goalie Sergei Bobrovsky probably stood out as the team’s MVP, winning the Vezina and the NHL’s heart, there hasn’t really been any player that dominates the team narrative the way that you see in, say, Pittsburgh.
Columbus doesn’t have a Sidney Crosby (or a Jonathan Toews or a John Tavares, for that matter). This is not a commentary on skill, mind. Dubinsky and Gaborik and Johnson and Atkinson and Foligno — really, any guy on the roster — are all great players. But none of them are franchise players the way Crosby is, the way Toews and Tavares are. That is, in terms of a “face of the franchise,” CBJ has remained remarkably democratic.
But this isn’t because none of them could be, only because Columbus has — intentionally or not — built the kind of team that doesn’t seem to value that kind of structure. What we’ve seen in Columbus as a result of the Phil Esposito Assistants-Only system is a type of leadership structure that spreads out, rather than being concentrated in one individual. And there have been real benefits of that. As CBJ Coach Todd Richards told NHL.com, not picking a captain, “brought more guys into the mix as far as taking ownership and leading the team.”
He’s right. We’ve seen real leadership grow up in surprising places, as various players step up in the lacuna of the C.
Does this mean that they couldn’t benefit from having a permanent captain? No. Of course not. By all accounts, when Johnson showed up last year, morale and energy in the locker room skyrocketed. Dubinsky never holds back on his shifts and always plays with the kind of intensity that can light a fire under a team’s skates. The reason why teams have captaincy at all is because a good captain can anchor his team, bring them together, and fire them up, all in one locker room speech.
A captain is not necessarily the best player, nor is he the most tenured. Crosby got the C when he was practically still in the womb, but all reports from the Penguins’ locker room have been overwhelmingly positive. Toews is certainly amongst the best players on the Blackhawks, but it’s hard to give any kind of definitive rank when you have players like Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Marian Hossa in your lineup.
The captain is the guy that you go to, no matter what the issue is. It’s important, that feeling of being under someone’s wing. A good captain is both Team Dad and Team Big Brother Who Sneaks You Out Passed Curfew. He’s the guy that gets you drunk before your wedding but doesn’t let you eat McDonalds before a big game. He’s also the guy that talks to management about what’s up in the locker rooms, a double agent for both sides.
But Columbus has resisted naming anyone to that position. In the same interview, Richards stated point-blank that he was “not going to pick a captain just because every team has to have a captain… It has to be the right guy, or you don’t do it.”
The issue is that the culture of the team right now isn’t one that seems to foster the kind stand-out leadership that would showcase “the right guy.” Obviously we don’t see what goes on in the locker room, who sends out the mass texts of encouragement after losses or screenshots the profiles of the (alarmingly high number of) CBJ players on Tinder to wallpaper their cubbies with. But on the ice, the team really does seem to function as a unit, with the A’s only necessary to talk to the officials. And that’s a system that works, for the Blue Jackets. Worked well enough last season to get them closer to the playoffs than they’ve been in years.
So maybe the question isn’t, “Who should be captain?” Maybe the question is, “Should we have a captain at all?”