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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

Trade: Bruins ship Adam McQuaid to Rangers

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The Boston Bruins were set to enter the 2018-19 season with four right-shooting defensemen on their NHL roster. Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller all had their spots in the lineup. But it was going to be tough to find a spot for rugged defender Adam McQuaid, so the Bruins decided to ship him out of town.

On Tuesday morning, Boston sent McQuaid to the New York Rangers for Steven Kampfer, a fourth-round draft pick in 2019 and a conditional seventh-round pick.

The 31-year-old has one year remaining on his contract at $2.75 million. That’s a significant amount of money for a player that probably wouldn’t have had a regular spot in the lineup. This will be the first time in his NHL career that he’s going to play for another team. McQuaid was originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, but he never suited up for them. He spent parts of three seasons with AHL Providence before joining the club in 2009-10.

Here’s a fun fact: When the Blue Jackets traded McQuaid to Boston in 2007, they received a fifth-rounder. Columbus then traded that fifth-rounder to Dallas. The Stars used that draft pick to select Jamie Benn

Kampfer, who is in his second stint with the Bruins, also shoots right, but his contract comes with a digestible cap hit of $650,000 (Boston can send him to the minors without facing any cap penalties).

In all, the Bruins will end up saving $2.1 million in cap space, which isn’t insignificant.

McQuaid has also had a hard time getting in the lineup/staying healthy over the last few seasons. Since the 2013-14 season, the veteran has played in more than 65 games just once (2016-17).

MORE:
Three questions facing the Rangers
Three questions facing the Bruins

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.

Tavares pursuit may not be last time tensions rise between Bruins, Krejci

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Sports often inspire a callous “what have you done for me lately?” attitude toward players, something that must cut deeper for players who’ve been with one team for a long time.

With that in mind, it’s not shocking that David Krejci admitted that it hurt when the Boston Bruins made a failed bid to sign John Tavares. Krejci recently opened up to NBC Boston’s Joe Haggerty about his experiences. From what he said, it sounds like being in the dark and being badgered by certain Bruins fans bothered him the most.

“I had no idea what was going on. My agent didn’t tell my [anything] because he said he didn’t know anything. I didn’t get any phone calls from anyone from the Bruins,” Krejci said. “So I was just getting those Instargram messages [telling me to request a trade] in my inbox. I know that I have a no-trade so they would have to call me [if they did end up signing Tavares].

“Yeah, that wasn’t kind of something I enjoyed. But it was over pretty quick. It was a quick couple of weeks. It is what it is.”

Krejci is correct about that being a quick process, as most will probably forget that the Bruins were even – tangentially – in the mix for Tavares.

It’s tough to shake the feeling that this won’t be the last tense moment between the Bruins and Krejci as the team tries to balance attempts at improving with salary cap management. With that in mind, this Tavares situation could reverberate. After all, if you’re Krejci, are you that excited to waive your no-trade clause for a management group that didn’t seem to make even a token gesture toward communicating during the Tavares sweepstakes? And, as much as Krejci appreciates the majority of fans, should he bow to a trade request after getting nasty messages, even if they came from just a few bad apples?

“I have a lot of fans, which is great,” Krejci said. “I think it’s a common thing where people say ‘Awesome, awesome…great job’ and you appreciate it. But if there’s a bad comment it sticks in your head. So that wasn’t nice.”

Impressive accomplishments

It’s not nice for a player who’s meant a lot to the Bruins, even if Krejci’s work hasn’t always been as heralded as it maybe should have been.

Most memorably, Krejci topped all playoff scorers in 2012-13 (26 points, seven more than anyone else) and 2010-11 (23), helping the Bruins win that 2011 Stanley Cup. Since that championship season, Krejci’s scored 418 points, the third-best mark for Boston after Brad Marchand (458) and Patrice Bergeron (454).

Of course, it’s understandable for someone to cringe while scanning the Bruins’ Cap Friendly page, considering that Krejci carries the team’s highest cap hit at $7.25M, and cringe that the 32-year-old’s contract lasts three more seasons. His contract isn’t the worst on the books, yet it’s a lot easier to imagine the Bruins landing a good trade return for Krejci instead of a banged-up, rapidly declining David Backes. And so, that opens the door for social media cruelty.

Gas left in the tank

Beyond being mean, it’s far too easy to dismiss that Krejci still brings value as a player, even if it’s debatable if he’s worth $7.25M.

(He’s not worth more than David Pastrnak, Marchand, or Bergeron, but all three of those guys are being paid less than they’d make on the open market anyway, and probably by a massive margin.)

Bruins fans might grumble at Krejci finishing the 2017-18 regular season with 17 goals and 44 points, yet he did so while struggling through injuries (just 64 games played). You could argue that Krejci sputtered against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the bottom line is that he generated 10 points in 12 games during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Krejci deserves ample credit for helping Jake DeBrusk take his game up a notch, even if things didn’t go as swimmingly with Rick Nash.

Krejci also generated solid possession stats, although you can dock him a bit for also enjoying cushy offensive zone starts. There are even some ways where Krejci meets or exceeds Tavares, as you can see from this comparison via Bill Comeau’s SKATR tool.

Those are far from “run this guy out of town” numbers, right?

Will he have a long memory?

Still, one can understand why the Bruins might want to trade Krejci. With Krejci likely to decline further considering he’s 32, the Bruins would probably choose Torey Krug instead, and looming raises for young players (most prominently Charlie McAvoy, who’s about to enter a contract year) might force such a decision.

According to Cap Friendly, Krejci has a no-movement clause for 2018-19 and a modified version in 2019-20 and 2020-21. During those latter years, he’d be asked to provide a list of teams he’d accept a trade to, which would amount to half of the NHL (which would be 15, as the clause states that you’d round down). One could see a scenario where he’d feel pressure to OK a trade that entail going to a cellar-dweller, or a place he wouldn’t want to play.

In that moment, Bruins fans and management could be breathing down Krejci’s neck. Don’t blame Krejci if he does what’s best for him then, especially after what happened during that brief (but telling?) push for Tavares.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Canucks and Karlsson; X-factors for Flyers

Sharks

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.

• In honor of the All-Star Game returning to San Jose, the Sharks will give away an Owen Nolan “calling his shot” bobblehead in January. [Sharks]

• Why would the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks blow it all up for potentially only one season with Erik Karlsson? [Sportsnet]

Nikita Kucherov doing a little recruiting of Artemi Panarin? [Tampa Bay Times]

• Sounds like Alex Galchenyuk will get a chance to play center with the Arizona Coyotes, which seems ideal. [Coyotes]

• Will Tyler Seguin re-sign with the Dallas Stars before he’s eligibile for unrestricted free agency next summer? [Dallas Morning News]

• There’s a foursome of RFA defensemen still waiting to sign extensions with their teams. Training camps open soon. [The Hockey News]

• How much is left in the tank for Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo? [The Rat Trick]

• Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy has a big fan in Ray Bourque. [WEEI]

• Aside from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who are some of the Washington Capitals’ other top duos? [Capitals Outsider]

• Emerson Etem will attend Los Angeles Kings training camp on a PTO. [LA Kings Insider]

• How the Vegas Golden Knights have helped the UNLV hockey program. [Las Vegas Sun]

Matthew Tkachuk is looking to build off a strong sophomore campaign with the Calgary Flames. [Flames]

• A third line center and Brian Elliott are some of the Philadelphia Flyers’ biggest X-factors for the 2018-19 season. [Flyers Nation]

• Why banning on-the-fly line changes in hockey might be a good idea. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Finally, another hockey season arrives and Jaromir Jagr continues scoring goals:

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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.

Three questions facing Boston Bruins

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future.

Today we look at the Boston Bruins.

If three questions aren’t enough:

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

1. Will the aging curve send them into a brick wall?

Here’s a confession: my expectation was that the Bruins would look like an old team, at least at the top, during the 2017-18 season.

Instead, the Bruins went from a good (if frustrating) team under Claude Julien into a frequently scary (in a good way) squad with Bruce Cassidy running the ship. The top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak flat-out abused opponents with their skill and puck possession, to the point that the machine kept humming even when a key piece was on the shelf due to injuries. Zdeno Chara may or may not own a personal Lazarus Pit, as he remained fantastic at 40. Boston ultimately succumbed to Tampa Bay during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet B’s fans could be forgiven for picturing scenarios in which a deeper run was quite plausible.

With that in mind, the bar will likely be set higher in 2018-19.

What if Father Time merely strikes a year later?

Chara is 41. Bergeron’s 33, and some of those years have been tough (remember all of the ailments he dealt with in 2013, and how much concussions threatened the early phases of his career?). David Krejci is 32 and slipping, while David Backes‘ style isn’t necessarily friendly to a 34-year-old. Tuukka Rask is already 31, and Marchand is 30.

Ideally, the Bruins’ veteran bests will age out just in time for their youngsters to take over. Whether it’s 2018-19 or a little later, there’s also the possibility that the Bruins might suffer if that transition ends up being bumpy.

2. Will young players make more strides forward?

Hockey fans (and sports fans in general) have a habit of daydreaming young players to stardom, yet sometimes the siren call of potential can be quite misleading. Such a phenomenon explains why, if you need to send a star player away in a trade, it’s often wise to get a first-rounder (even if its from a good team who will leave you pretty close to round two).

While the Bruins passed up on Mathew Barzal (read more about that in this larger piece about promising forward Jake DeBrusk), Don Sweeney & Co. have gone on to find some pretty fantastic young talent. It’s easier said than done to replenish your reserves when your team is trading away premium picks and/or rarely drafting at the top of the first round, yet the Bruins rank among the best at doing just that.

David Pastrnak is the young stud among the aging stars at top, and sometimes you need to shake your head at the fact that he’s still just 22. Delightfully for the Bruins, 20-year-old defensive blue chip Charlie McAvoy provides Pastrnak with a rival in the “Who’s the best under-25 Bruin?” debate.

Most of the time, when you’re drafting outside of the lottery spots, you’re not going to find superstars that often. The Bruins have also supplemented talent with useful supporting cast members including DeBrusk, Ryan Donato, Brandon Carlo, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork.

The Bruins’ impressive fleet of reinforcements present interesting sub-questions. Will they at least be as effective as they were last season? Beyond an obvious choice like McAvoy, could DeBrusk and especially Donato offer a lot more as they continue to gain Cassidy’s trust?

Earlier in this post, there was the fearful scenario where older veterans fade before up-and-comers rise. On the flip side, the Bergerons and Marchands could sustain their all-world work while young players give the Bruins the sort of depth that true contenders relish.

3. Will the Atlantic simply be too tough?

The Washington Capitals provide evidence that NHL franchises don’t always know, for sure, when their best “windows” to win might be. Unfortunately, for most teams, being wrong doesn’t mean winning the Stanley Cup after you took what seemed to be your best shots.

This Bruins team could, conceivably, be as good or better than the 2017-18 edition and still get smoked in the first round.

We already saw the Bruins fall to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team brimming with prime-age talent that might find another gear (or perhaps make a bold addition like landing Erik Karlsson?) next season. The Maple Leafs pushed the Bruins to a Game 7 without John Tavares; if all of Toronto’s pieces fit together, the Lightning might not even be Boston’s biggest worry.

It would be foolish to totally dismiss the Florida Panthers’ chances of making a big step forward, too, considering their summer improvements, talent at the top end, and their imposing finish to 2017-18.

The NHL’s current playoff system dictates that second round can sometimes present a larger hurdle than overcoming the conference final. A lot can change between early August and the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet right now, the Bruins don’t exactly seem like the favorites in a top-heavy division.

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.