Training camp will open Friday without a captain, which for the Carolina Hurricanes is both an obvious decision and a correct one.
Unlike transitions past, when a natural and obvious successor was ready and waiting – Keith Primeau, Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Staal – there isn’t anyone on the roster who is an obvious choice to fill that role in the wake of Staal’s departure.
There are a few younger players who probably aren’t ready and a few older players who aren’t the complete package. One of them may emerge during the season, or even during training camp, to claim the mantle of leadership on this team. But who that might be, and whether anyone will, is anyone’s guess at this point.
This is important because the role of captain is far more than ceremonial in hockey. Unlike the NFL and its goofy patches, the “C” represents something real when worn on a hockey sweater. A captain must be a leader of men, both vocally and by example; a diplomat with coaches, officials and the media; able to command both the dressing room and the press-conference podium; and a player of considerable accomplishment in an important role, or one with strong enough intangibles to surmount that hurdle.
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The leadership of Francis and Brind’Amour was critical to the franchise’s two conference championships, although they had the advantage of a cadre of veteran leaders around them, players like Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican and Kevyn Adams and so on who could have easily assumed the captaincy if needed. Staal wasn’t as successful but didn’t have that luxury. Nor will his successor.
Jordan Staal probably comes closest to checking all of the boxes, but there’s an obvious hazard in lurching from Staal to Staal. He was at least part of a winner in Pittsburgh. It’s also possible we haven’t seen the full portfolio of his leadership qualities yet, as it would be completely understandable if he was somewhat reticent to display them with his brother as captain. Staal, a few weeks ago, denied that was the case, but he might not even have realized if he was deferring to Eric. Regardless, he has a season now to show what kind of leader he is on his own.
Jeff Skinner grew exponentially as a player and leader last season, and may have the most long-term potential, but is only 24 and still has never been a part of a winning dressing room. As a one-franchise player, he doesn’t even have the experience of seeing how it’s done elsewhere. He still has a lot to learn about winning hockey as a player, let alone a captain, although there’s no reason he can’t get there someday.
Justin Faulk faces the same issues and has yet to demonstrate the kind of forceful personality he would need as a captain, although there’s still plenty of time for that to emerge. Skinner and Faulk both have a lot to prove. Jay McClement has many of the intangibles, but is somewhat marginalized by his role. The same is true to an extent with Ron Hainsey. Joakim Nordstrom may have the right personality but needs experience and a bigger role.
There are a lot of players who check a few boxes, but none who checks all of them. That’s the problem with having a very young roster that hasn’t won anything in almost a decade, a somewhat jarring reality for a franchise that was once built around a granite core of veteran leadership.
There’s also the very real possibility that the next captain of the Hurricanes isn’t on the roster right now. The Hurricanes could add a late-career veteran in the next few weeks from a team that’s pressed against the salary cap or at the deadline if they’re in contention, someone with unquestioned leadership credentials – like Francis in the summer of 1998 or Brind’Amour in the middle of the 1999-2000 season.
A player like that might become as obvious a choice next fall as not having a captain is this fall.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock