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Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Unsigned restricted free agents as NHL camps open

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With NHL training camps underway and the big trades we were all waiting for (Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty) completed the next big thing to watch around the league are the remaining unsigned restricted free agents.

There are seven of them around the league and they all find themselves in a similar situation: They are either 22 or 23 years old, they are coming off of their entry-level contracts, and none of them had any arbitration rights this offseason. As much as everyone around the league hates the arbitration process, there is no denying that it gets things done (either before arbitration or during it), something Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee recently pointed out as he deals with one of the ongoing RFA situations with defenseman Shea Theodore.

“People get pressured into getting a deal done or you go to arbitration,” McPhee said at the start of training camp this past week, via NHL.com. “There’s a group of 10-15 good young players in the League that don’t have arbitration rights and don’t have contracts right now. And it just seems to take a while to work them out.”

A lot of times the big issue at play is the team preferring to sign the player to a shorter-term bridge contract, while the player tends to want the security that comes with a long-term contract.

Let us go around the league and take a quick look at the seven teams and players that still need to reach a deal.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs — Nylander is the big one still out there because he’s a front-line player and, well, he plays for Toronto and that immediately makes him a big story. He’s already missed the first days of training camp and there are reports that the two sides are still far apart on a deal as Nylander doesn’t want to sign a bridge deal. And quite honestly, neither should Toronto. At this point we have a pretty good idea of the type of player that Nylander is (a really good one) and he is just now entering his peak years. Signing him to a two-year contract now and then signing him to a long-term contract after that after he’s continued to develop into his prime years is probably going to end up costing Toronto more money than if it just signed him to a long-term deal now that is comparable to, say, the one David Pastrnak signed in Boston before the 2017-18 season.

The concern that everyone will have here for Toronto is making this all work under the salary cap. The team spent big money on John Tavares in free agency this summer and after this season will have to sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to new contracts. They will not be cheap.

Some might argue that Toronto will have to trade one of the young guys (either Nylander or Marner, with Nylander usually the one being suggested) but the Maple Leafs can make this work with all of them.

Keep your young, impact talent.

Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights — Theodore’s absence and lack of a contract is a pretty big deal for Vegas right now.

Not only was he one of the Golden Knights’ top defenseman a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes a night and finishing with 26 points from the blue line, but with Nate Schmidt set to miss the first 20 games of the season due to a suspension the team is already going to be shorthanded on the blue line.

As recently as Friday afternoon the word here (via TSN’s Pierre LeBrun) is that the two sides were far apart.

Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers — Like the situation in Vegas with Theodore, the Oilers really need Nurse on the ice because an already undermanned unit became even thinner when the Oilers lost Andrej Sekera to injury. On Friday Nurse’s agent told the Edmonton Journal the two sides have a disagreement on what Nurse’s value is currently is, resulting in the 23-year-old defenseman returning to Toronto to continue to train.

Via the Journal:

“We have a disagreement on what Darnell’s value is and at this time there’s no meeting of the minds,” said Nurse’s agent Anton Thun, who feels there’s no reason for Nurse to stay in Edmonton now.

“He’s not under contract with the Oilers. He’s gone back to train where he did all summer, training in the same rink and gym. He can skate with a university or junior team. He won’t be skating by himself,” said Thun, who doesn’t feel Nurse, because of his age (24) is losing that much by not being in camp right now.

“If he didn’t know who his defence partners were or didn’t know the team, it would be important to be on the ice learning the ropes but this is his fourth year in the organization.”

Nurse appeared in all 82 games for the Oilers a year ago and set new career-highs across the board and played more minutes than anyone on the team. (UPDATE: Nurse has signed a two-year deal.)

Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres — Reinhart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft, may never be a superstar but his production through the first three years of his career has been remarkably consistent, and he should still be viewed as one of the team’s core players along with Jack Eichel and top pick Rasmus Dahlin.

He set new career-highs a year ago with 25 goals (tied for the team lead) and 50 points for the Sabres.

Still, there is a bit of a mystery as to what he can still be. At 22 he is still fairly young and probably has not entered his prime years yet, but after three consecutive years of 20-25 goals and 45-50 points, how much more untapped potential is there with him?

We can try to figure that out a little bit.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season there have been 31 forwards — including Reinhart — that have played at least 149 games through their age 22 season and averaged between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game (here is the list of players via Hockey-Reference).

Overall, it is a fairly strong list with some really good players.

The three best players that went on to become All-Star level players are Corey Perry, Zach Parise and Jakub Voracek, while there very few players that regressed or failed to go on to have productive careers (Steve Bernier, Peter Mueller, and Ryan Strome might fit that category). So there is a chance he could still really break out, but most likely this is probably close to what you should expect from him going forward. If you have a forward that can consistently get you 25 goals and 50 points you have yourself a pretty good top-six forward. Not a superstar by any means, but a player you can certainly win with.

Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils — Wood was one of the many young players the Devils relied on last season as they made their return to the playoffs. His 19 goals were fourth-most on the team (behind only Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier) and he did that while playing just 12 minutes per game over 76 games. On a per-minute basis he was one of the Devils’ most productive goal scorers and it wasn’t really the result of an unsustainably high shooting percentage. He was legitimately good.

General manager Ray Shero said at the start of camp that the two sides are pretty close, but that there are “some philosophical issues that need to be worked out about how the system works.”

Added Shero, via NJ.com, “That’s not just a situation with his agents or Miles himself.”

So chalk another one up under the system isn’t perfect category.

Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets — This isn’t the first time the Jets have had an RFA contract dispute with a young defenseman, going through this pretty regularly over the past few years with Jacob Trouba. That situation has reached a point where it remains unlikely that Trouba remains in Winnipeg long-term. They really do not want that storyline to repeat itself here. Morrissey isn’t quite as good as Trouba, but he is still a former first-round draft pick that has developed nicely and was one of the team’s top-four defenders a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes per night. (UPDATE: Morrissey is now signed.)

Nick Ritchie, Anaheim Ducks — Of all the remaining unsigned RFA’s Ritchie is the one that probably has the least amount of leverage because his career to this point has been, for lack of a better word, uninspiring. The No. 10 overall pick in 2014, Ritchie has appeared in 186 games in his NHL career and recorded just 26 goals and 33 assists (59 total points), including only 10 goals in 76 games a year ago. He is not quite a bust, but he also has not really taken a significant step forward (he actually scored four fewer goals this past season than he did the year before. If there is any player out of this group that should be destined for a “prove it” bridge type of contract, Ritchie is almost certainly the one.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tavares hopes for ‘positive’ reception when Maple Leafs visit Isles

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CHICAGO — For the first time in his NHL career, John Tavares will enter training camp on a new team. The July 1 free agency decision was the biggest news to come out of the summer and while the Toronto Maple Leafs’ acquisition puts them in a position to make a Stanley Cup run, it left a void in the roster of his old team that will be very tough to fill.

Choosing a team wasn’t the only big decision Tavares made this summer as the 27-year-old forward also got married. But now as training camp approaches, he’s feeling settled with his new city and new team.

“It’s what you came here for and that’s to play the game and get the competitive juices flowing and get on the ice and get into the grind of the season, which is what you play for, which is what you prepare for,” Tavares told Pro Hockey Talk during the NHL Player Media Tour on Friday. “I’m just looking forward to that now.”

The Maple Leafs organization has been slowly building the team to be a perennial contender and has taken big strides since drafting Auston Matthews No. 1 overall in 2016. But regular season success has ended with two first-round exits, including last spring against the Boston Bruins after a 105-point year.

So is Tavares the final piece of a Cup puzzle?

“I think he’s definitely a piece you add, and you look at a team that’s got a lot of depth, that has all the tools to win,” said Matthews. “But unless you put all those tools together, play as a team, come playoff time that’s the most important part.”

Return to New York

Two dates on the Maple Leafs schedule are of interest to Tavares: Feb. 28 and April 1. Those two nights he’ll visit his old team, with the second meeting taking place at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, where he began his NHL career. Once his decision was official, there was a very heavy negative reaction from Islanders fans, many feeling betrayed. Social media saw plenty of burning jersey videos and that could lead to an interesting reception when he arrives back in New York.

Tavares isn’t sure what the reaction will be, but he’s hoping the fan base understands how much they meant to him during his nine seasons with the Islanders.

“I didn’t think everyone was going to love [the decision],” he said. “At the end of the day I did what I felt was best for myself and what I thought was right for me. As I tried to express in my [Players’ Tribune] letter back to a lot of Islander fans and the community and the organization there, was really how much they helped me grow up and be the player and person I am today. I wouldn’t be who I am now without that and how much I appreciated the support I got from the community and the Islander fan base and how well the organization treated me and how much fun I had there over the years.

“I wish I was able to do a better job and lead the team to more success. It’s something I’ll always have to look back on and wish I could have done more and did a better job leading the team. But we’ll see what happens. I hope it’s positive because I know the positive impact they all made on me.”

MORE PHT MAPLE LEAFS COVERAGE:
Under Pressure: Mike Babcock
Three questions facing the Maple Leafs

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: NHLers insulted by Jalen Ramsey; How Stamkos became a playmaker

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee confirmed that the supplements the team gave Nate Schmidt weren’t the cause his failed drug test. (Las Vegas Sun)

• After the Toronto Maple Leafs pay Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, it’ll be hard for GM Kyle Dubas to keep the rest of the group together. (Sportsnet)

• Despite finishing 30th in the NHL last season, the Ottawa Senators haven’t really made many changes during the offseason. That’s probably not a good sign for a team in turmoil right now. (TSN.ca)

• Raw Charge takes a look at how Steven Stamkos went from being a sniper to being a set-up man. (Raw Charge)

• Several NHL players were insulted by the fact that Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey thinks he can make the NHL in six months. (ESPN)

James van Riemsdyk was sad to leave Toronto, but he’s always looking forward to going back home and playing for the Philadelphia Flyers again. (Featurd)

Nick Bonino‘s first season with the Nashville Predators didn’t go as planned. Not only did the Preds not win it all, but Bonino and the team struggled to produce when he was on the ice. (On the Forecheck)

• Women’s hockey supporters may be frustrated by the term “growing the game” but that’s the reality of the sport right now. Still, there’s been some huge growth over the last few years. (The Ice Garden)

• The NHL is taking a deeper look at Slava Voynov’s domestic abuse case so that they can determine whether or not he should be eligible to return to the league. (USA Today)

• Andrew Berkshire looks at how four summer acquisitions will fit in with one of the players on their new team. Max Domi, Ryan O'Reilly, Elias Lindholm and John Tavares could develop some interesting chemistry with at least one of their teammates. (Sportsnet)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hockey teams fearing ‘Fortnite’ is pretty adorable

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If you want to be bummed out, if not lose hope for humanity, just scroll through the news of the day. Unfortunately, the odds are high that you’ll feel worse than when you started.

It’s in these trying times that we can soothe our souls with the sheer, lovable goofiness that is the latest talk about how teams fear the impact of the wildly popular video game “Fortnite” on prospects.

To review, TSN’s Rick Westhead made some waves with this tweet regarding OHL prospects, something we should all really take a step back and just enjoy:

Oh, hockey people. Your understanding of that outside world/museums cannot ever be understated.

It must be said that this is far from the first time that “Fortnite” has been tarred. In case you missed it, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek discussed during an episode of the “31 Thoughts” Podcast that an unnamed “first-round pick” from a prominent NHL team whose career may never take thanks to an addiction to the battle royale game.

It’s all … funny, honestly.

Granted, there is the concern that a player with high-level hands will develop a dreaded case of “Nintendo Thumb.”

Scary stuff, gang.

Now, yes, it’s true that the American Psychiatric Association is taking a look at gaming disorder as a legitimate concern, but this all smells of us oldies not quite understanding what those young’uns are into these days. One could picture scouts being terrified over a young prospect needing to “collect them all” to the detriment of on-ice development back in 1992:

Erik Gudbranson really gets at the heart of the matter: a lot of us don’t get “Fortnite” because we’re old, and we might as well get used to being passed by thanks to the next thing those whippersnappers end up becoming obsessed with.

“To be honest with you, these kids are too good at this game,” Gudbranson said recently, via TSN’s Mark Masters. “I go on there, I get roasted, and you just get sick of it.”

(True. Few things sting as deeply as getting schooled by a teenager, especially when that was Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner.)

The fear of the polygonal unknown is honestly kind of charming, although it shines a light on how out-of-touch people can be when they’re deep in their hockey bubbles.

Maybe hockey teams do need to keep an eye on a player if such activities become an extreme outlier, but overall this feels like the hockey equivalent of being afraid to televise Elvis swiveling his hips. This is a far cry from rumbling about “Dry Islands,” after all. Such concerns would be easier to respect if scouts also worried about players spending too much time on golf courses, or other things they’re actually familiar with.

It must be surreal for Westhead, in particular, to discuss the perils of “Fortnite.” After all, Westhead tends to report on concussions, i.e. issues that actually do make a major impact on the lives and careers of hockey players.

A player indulging in too much Playstation should be filed under good problems to have, particularly when you consider the other ways one can spend their time. When you think of some of the extremely ugly scandals that surface in sports, “Fortnite phobia” borders on charming.

Instead of worrying about “Fortnite,” we should instead just enjoy the barbs.

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.