NHL teams shouldn’t simply hand the “C” to their best player

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To be honest, I often roll my eyes when people attach a mountainous amount of importance to “leadership.” In most of those cases, the player in question was just really good. (Mark Messier didn’t get by on being scary looking alone, after all.)

That being said, it seems like quite a few NHL teams flippantly give their best player the captain’s “C” even if that guy is as inspiring as a tub of tapioca pudding.

Ovechkin and Nash: natural leaders?

It’s likely that Rick Nash and Alex Ovechkin exhibit better leadership qualities than an oddly textured dessert, but their recent runs in the spotlight got me thinking about this subject again.* While each player’s respective team is in a very different situation, it’s hard for me to an accept an argument that their teammates would “battle in the trenches” (or some other goofy and inappropriate war analogy) for them.

Sure, the Columbus Blue Jackets weren’t exactly overflowing with options for their captaincy, but they might as well have done a ceremonial shoulder shrug when they handed Nash the “C.” The Washington Capitals might be more misguided, however, as it is painfully obvious that Brooks Laich (and even Mike Knuble) is the superior choice.

Assuming that Nash and Ovechkin even wanted that honor, I’d imagine that they would have easily dried their tears with a few $100 bills from their enormous contracts.

Other examples

source: APThose two aren’t the only guys whose teams didn’t seem to put a lot of thought into the whole thing, though.

  • Ryan Getzlaf has a great mean streak and buckets of talent, but he hardly screams “captain material” – especially considering his tendency to take bad penalties.
  • Zach Parise has a lot of the qualities you look for, but the parallels between his situation and Ilya Kovalchuk’s* should make New Jersey Devils fans a little queasy.
  • Vincent Lecavalier’s improved recent play upgrades him from “colossally overpaid” to “significantly overpaid.” Still, I can’t see why the team didn’t hand the job to Martin St. Louis instead – unless he outright refused it.
  • Mark Streit went from missing the entirety of the 2010-11 campaign to becoming the New York Islanders’ captain this season. It went by without much of a reaction because, let’s face it, we expect weird things from the Isles now.
  • I don’t have a big issue with them, but others might question the logic of appointing Joe Thornton, Dion Phaneuf, Jason Pominville and Milan Hejduk as captains

***

Ultimately, leadership is an intangible quality that is frequently blown out of proportion. Still, when things go bad, there are quite a few teams who seem to lack a go-to guy to turn to because management based their captaincy decision on box scores alone.

* – The moment that really planted this idea in my head came when the Atlanta Thrashers made Kovalchuk their captain. The team was desperate to keep the Russian star in the fold, so they handed him the “C” to try to convince him to stay. That failed spectacularly, and amusingly enough, Kovalchuk is displaying more leadership qualities in New Jersey than he ever did in Atlanta.

Wickenheiser, Pegula reflect NHL’s trend toward diversity

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — With a laugh, Kim Pegula’s competitive nature kicked in when the subject of the Toronto Maple Leafs hiring Hayley Wickenheiser was broached.

Impressed as the Sabres president was by the gender-breaking move in August, Pegula’s first reaction was wondering how Buffalo’s cross-border rival beat her to the punch in making Wickenheiser the NHL’s first woman to hold a hockey operations role as assistant director of player development.

”Darn it,” Pegula said, smiling. ”I wish I would’ve done it first.”

The NHL’s first female team president then turned serious.

”No, I was very glad to see that. I think it’s a long time coming,” Pegula said. ”That’s going to have staying power.”

Wickenheiser was amused when informed of Pegula’s initial reaction, hoping other teams such as the Sabres will follow the Maple Leafs in breaking hockey’s glass ceiling.

”Well, that’s a good thing,” said Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympian and one of the most accomplished women in hockey. ”I don’t see why we won’t see women in other positions like this in the near future.”

The Maple Leafs also added Noelle Needham as an amateur scout – only the third women to hold such a job in league history – in another move buttressing the idea that the NHL is making progress in welcoming women to key roles.

”I think respect, courage, getting over tradition, being brave enough to think outside the box is what took so long,” Wickenheiser said.

”Hockey’s a very traditional game, very old school in a lot of ways. And the new generation of leadership coming in doesn’t think the same way as the old school did,” she added. ”It’s just an evolution of where we’re at as a society. And I think hockey’s following along with it.”

Pegula, who with her husband Terry also own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, took over the president’s title of both teams in May after Russ Brandon resigned over an alleged inappropriate relationship with a female employee. Rather than hire a new president with both teams breaking in new coaches and general managers, Pegula took over to provide stability.

Inroads are being made at the league office, too. In the past two years, ,the NHL has hired Heidi Browning as chief marketing officer, and Kim Davis as executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stressed the importance of encouraging diversity in a league he says has a fan base almost evenly split between men and women.

”We want our clubs and our league to hire the most qualified people. But we want to consider applicants with every sort of background,” Bettman told The Associated Press. ”Diversity is a strength in all forms. So as we’re continuing to evolve and grow, having the resource of lots of different people with lots of different backgrounds and experience is only going to make the game stronger.”

Wickenheiser has long criticized the NHL’s lack of diversity, especially when it comes to hiring women as compared with North America’s other major professional sports.

Dawn Braid was pro hockey’s first full-time female assistant in being hired as the Arizona Coyotes skating coach in 2016; she is no longer with the team after a two-year stint.

The NBA now features two female assistant coaches, including Becky Hammon, who interviewed for the Milwaukee Bucks head-coaching vacancy in spring. In the NFL, Pegula’s Bills were the first to hire a full-time female assistant, Kathryn Smith, in 2016, and in August appointed Phoebe Schecter to a season-long coaching internship.

Finally, the NHL is catching up, with Wickenheiser saying: ”If you’re only hiring white men, you’re probably missing out on a lot of talent that’s out there.”

Wickenheiser’s qualifications are hard to match, male or female. The 40-year-old won four gold medals and a silver, and is the Winter Games career leader with 18 goals and 51 points upon retiring in January 2017.

Even though she is pursuing a degree in medicine at the University of Calgary, Wickenheiser jumped at general manager Kyle Dubas’ offer to mentor Leafs’ prospects both in western Canada and during monthly trips to Toronto.

Wickenheiser acknowledged there’s added pressure on her to succeed.

”I think it would be silly to ignore that fact. So yeah, I feel that expectation,” she said.

And yet, it’s no different from the challenges she faced playing on the international stage and in various men’s leagues during her 23-year career.

”To me, it feels pretty natural,” she said. ”There’s something a little bit disarming about it that makes it in some ways easier to have that conversation. They know I’m not a threat to them, because I’m on their side.”

Pegula’s rise to becoming one of the most influential women in sports grew from modest beginnings. She was an orphan in South Korea before being adopted in 1974, and eventually grew up outside of Rochester, New York.

”I really don’t take that for granted, and I realize the situation I’m in,” she said of her childhood. ”There’s nothing I can complain about. And I hope I never lose that excitement and energy of what I do, good or bad, wins and losses.”

The Pegulas are newcomers to sports. They purchased the Sabres in February 2011, a year after Terry Pegula sold his Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling rights for $4.7 billion to Royal Dutch Shell. Some 3 1/2 years later, they secured the Bills’ long-term future in western New York by buying the franchise after the death of owner Ralph Wilson.

Kim Pegula acknowledged there’s been a steep learning curve in going from being a season-ticket holder to the owner’s box of a sports empire that also includes the National Women’s Hockey League ‘s Buffalo Beauts.

Pegula regards her role as an equal partnership with her husband, though their interests in approaching their teams differ, which is a reflection of their 25 years in marriage. Terry Pegula enjoys studying film, player development and paying careful attention during games, while Kim veers more toward game presentation, fan amenities and player needs.

”For Terry, I call him ‘a wild-catter’ in the oil and gas business. What he loves is finding and developing natural gas fields,” she said. ”I’m more, and I think it comes from being a mom, whether it’s problem solving, figuring things out, getting things done. Execution.”

It was Kim who played a big role in designing the Sabres and Bills new locker rooms and player lounges.

Pegula won’t, as she put it, tell coach Phil Housley how to run his power play, but she did have a say in hiring him, and takes a personal approach in getting to know each player.

Upon signing with the Sabres in July, goalie Carter Hutton recalled how Pegula texted his wife asking if she needed help getting settled. Pegula then sent gift baskets to Hutton’s wife and children.

”For someone in a position like that to reach out and take the time to really make sure my wife felt comfortable was really important,” Hutton said, noting that didn’t happen in his previous four stops. ”It makes the transition easier for me to focus on playing hockey when everything else is taken care of at home.”

Pegula is pleased with NHL’s emphasis on diversity.

”What we have now and women being seen in these roles, that trickles down,” Pegula said. ”So in 10 years, you’re going to have qualified coaches available, not just one, much more of a handful.”

Wickenheiser foresees opportunities opening up on numerous fronts for women, from officiating, coaching to management.

”Yeah, anything’s possible,” she said, before breaking into a laugh when asked about her next step.

”Honestly, I have given that zero thought,” Wickenheiser said. ”I’m just trying to get through today.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: Gallagher’s dagger

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Three Stars:

1. John Carlson

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in Washington’s overtime win, but we have to dock him some imaginary three star points for collecting both tallies from his “office” on the power play. Besides, Carlsson generated more points in the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win, generating a goal and two assists. He also fired five shots on goal and logged a hearty 26:02 time on ice.

(Neal Pionk ranked as a strong honorable mention for the Rangers, offering up three assists and four blocked shots.)

2. Michael Frolik

Frolik heralded the reunion of “The 3M Line” with a difference-making performance, scoring two early goals in Calgary’s victory against Boston. The defensively responsible forward came very close to collecting a hat trick, sending a shorthanded breakaway attempt just a little too high against Tuukka Rask.

He ended up with a +3 rating, three shots on goal, and even won his two draws.

3. John Gibson

You could easily give the third star to Ryan Kesler, who turned back the clock to score two goals (and was Frolik-close to nabbing a hat trick while barely missing an empty net from way downtown).

Gibson’s been the motor for the Ducks’ defiantly strong start to 2018-19 season, though, and the fantastic goalie fell just 34 seconds short of a shutout, stopping 34 out of 35 shots. The American-born netminder is now on a four-game winning streak.

Highlights of the Night:

OK, it’s probably the lowlight of the night, as Colton Parayko caught up an absolutely brutal turnover in the closing moments of regulation, opening the door for Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher to combine for a stunning Habs game-winner, as you can see in these highlights:

Yeesh.

Patrice Bergeron can do it all.

Factoids

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals from his “office” on the power play, and while not every multi-goal night has been as easy as that looked, it certainly comes easier to Ovechkin than anyone else:

Johnny Gaudreau hit a nice milestone by scoring his 100th goal in his 318th NHL game. He’s not far from hitting 200 assists, either.

Scores

Capitals 4, Rangers 3 (OT)
Canadiens 3, Blues 2
Flames 5, Bruins 2
Ducks 4, Islanders 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Flames extinguish Bruins’ hot streak

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For a while there, it looked like the Boston Bruins were going to being 2018-19 with a “feast or famine” approach. Would they exchange blowout losses and impressive winning streaks?

Instead, the Bruins got back into Wednesday’s game after the Flames stormed to a 3-0 lead in the first period, but Calgary ultimately prevailed 5-2.

To start things off, the Flames enjoyed some sensational work from Michael Frolik, who celebrated the reunion of “The 3M Line” with two early goals. Frolik nearly netted at hat trick during a stretch where the Flames generated two semi-breakaways on the penalty kill, but he settled for the sort of night that should make another healthy scratch unlikely.

Frolik’s face was almost as entertaining as the tic-tac-toe goal that inspired it:

There were stretches where the Bruins seemed like they might do more than save face.

Most notably, the Bruins began the third period with a healthy 5-on-3 opportunity, yet Boston failed to even register a shot on goal. (To be fair, David Pastrnak found the post, but it was still a weak showing considering the Bruins’ firepower.)

While it was a night Tuukka Rask would like to forget, the veteran goalie deserves some credit for gathering hits wits after a tough first period. One of his better bounce-back moments came when he denied Johnny Gaudreau‘s attempt to score his 101st NHL goal (he scored number 100 during a first-period flurry), a save that preceded a vicious hit by Charlie McAvoy:

Generally speaking, the two teams’ impressive top lines delivered in this one.

Gaudreau hit that 100-goal milestone, and while the Bruins roughed him up quite a bit (even beyond that McAvoy hit), created a lot of chances as usual. Patrice Bergeron scored a sweet goal and an assist, Brad Marchand found the net, and Pastrnak collected a helper to go with a disallowed tally from the first period.

The Flames’ struggles have been confounding, at times, because they’ve fallen short quite often even though they combine Gaudreau-Sean Monahan with that “3M Line” of Frolik, Mikael Backlund, and Matthew Tkachuk. In this case, that second line made the difference.

Thanks to this result, Calgary’s won four of its last five games, while Boston’s four-game winning streak comes to an end.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Day at Ovechkin’s office: Capitals edge Rangers in OT

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The Washington Capitals outlasted the New York Rangers in what was largely a game of inches and lethal power-play units.

Matt Niskanen ultimately notched the difference-maker in Washington’s 4-3 overtime win as the Capitals ended a losing streak at two games. The rebuilding Rangers provided a pretty spirited showing, holding their own as the Capitals generated a modest 38-32 shots on goal advantage.

Here’s that Niskanen game-winner:

Each power-play unit went 2-for-4 on Wednesday, with the Capitals taking advantage of the “Death and Taxes” certainty of Alex Ovechkin scoring from “his office.” Both of Ovechkin’s power-play goals came from almost the exact same spot, with the main difference being that the second one caught Henrik Lundqvist a bit more by surprise (in part because he shot low).

John Carlson ranked as one of the Capitals’ standout performers in this win, generating one goal and two assists.

The Rangers enjoyed strong nights from their own first line, as both Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider authored one-goal, one-assist performances while creating plenty of other chances. (Jesper Fast was also busy, although he failed to generate any points.)

Circling back to that “game of inches” point, consider that Washington barely avoided a goal, as Christian Djoos saved the day early on:

While Ovechkin was close to nabbing yet another hat trick:

The Rangers and Capitals approach the 2018-19 season with very different expectations, yet each team saw their veteran goalies manage some nice stops, enjoyed strong nights from their top guns, and generally put on a nice show on NBCSN.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.