Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Captain's "C"

There are many things we know about Brian Gionta. First, he's achieved more in hockey than his size would have allowed without a tremendous will to back it up. We know he's got blazing speed and enviable hand-eye coordination. He takes whatever physical punishment he must as he screens the opposing goalie, which demonstrates courage. He rehabbed a pair of bizarre injuries at a time in his career when it might have felt easier to pack it in, which shows perseverance. We know he's been a well-liked and respectful captain of the Canadiens. And we also know there's a good chance he won't be back in Montreal next year.

His is the last big contract left from the Gainey/Gauthier 2009 housecleaning that gutted an underachieving roster and restocked it with expensive free agents. In his time in Montreal, Gionta has mostly earned that money. He recorded two of his best three career goalscoring seasons during this contract and, in the magical 2010 playoff run, he put up 15 points over 19 games in his first year as captain. Unfortunately, at age 35 and with a couple of rebuilt bicep tendons, the goalscoring touch that has always been his bread-and-butter seems to be deserting him.

When Gionta isn't scoring goals, he's admittedly still a smart defensive player who's developed a new value as a penalty killer. The problem is, low-scoring penalty killers are available in models both younger and cheaper than Gionta. And, considering the current construction of the Canadiens lineup, they come in bigger sizes too. Aside from his age and the inevitable decline in his skills, Gionta has the misfortune of being part of a lineup that also includes three other forwards who are 5'9" or smaller. David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher are still producing points. Daniel Briere has another year on his contract and is untradable. Therefore, if the Canadiens are to get bigger and younger on the wing, something's got to give and Gionta's contract is up.

Assuming Gionta's not back, the Canadiens have two choices when it comes to the captaincy. First, they could leave it empty like they did in the wake of Saku Koivu's departure. Second, they could name a current member of the team to the post. If they choose the second option however, the candidates are limited.

A captain in the NHL must be someone with experience in the league. He should be someone with an unquestioned work ethic and someone with enough skill to command respect in the room. He has to be an adaptable personality who can get along with as many of his teammates as possible, and a good communicator who can translate the coach's messages to the room and player's feelings to the coach. Most importantly, he should be a leader who knows when to rouse the room and when to glare, when to call a team meeting, when to yell and when to have fun. He should be the face of the team and the guy his teammates can approach when they have a problem or a question. It's a big job.

Among current Canadiens, the experience criterion is fulfilled in Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges, Carey Price, Daniel Briere, Travis Moen and Brandon Prust. Of those guys, Markov didn't want the "C" last time it became available, so he's probably not heading to the front of the line this time around. Briere is a first-year Canadien who spends most of his time on the fourth line and isn't producing what he contract says he should, so he's not a realistic candidate. Prust is certainly a heart-and-soul kind of player, but his reckless style of play leaves him on the injured list more often than most. Also, there aren't many grinders who become their team's captain. Ditto for Travis Moen.

Tomas Plekanec has seniority, he's the best two-way player on the team, he works hard every time he's on the ice and seems to get along with his teammates. He's also well-known to be a quiet guy who doesn't say much and chooses to lead by example. That's fine for a veteran, but whether he's comfortable with the inevitable times a captain must rip his teammates a new one is debatable. His national team believed he was the right choice for captain at the Sochi Olympics, but it's a different matter to captain a tournament than it is to captain a pro team through an 82-game grind plus playoffs. Maybe he'd have no problem yelling at a slacker who needs it, but it's hard to imagine.

Josh Gorges has no problem talking in the room. Anyone who's seen 24CH has seen him earnestly telling his teammates to finish their checks and not get beat on the wall. Anyone who's seen this has also probably rolled their eyes or laughed. Gorges has heart, no doubt about it. And he's got a tremendous will to win. He agreed to let a rookie share his home for two seasons, which is the kind of thing leaders do. He's also a guy who, like a too-serious coach, is easy to tune out when he says the same things every night and his on-ice performance is too mistake-prone for better players to respect.

Carey Price might be the best choice for captain, if he weren't the goalie. He fits the bill in every other way. He's got the experience, he's got the respect due the best player on the ice, he busts his butt to make sure he's always at the top of his game, he's funny and articulate, but he's got the kind of temper that can make guys who aren't pulling their weight cringe. He's the only guy on the team right now who can give a slacking teammate "The Look" and make it stick. He'd be the perfect captain...but, he's the goalie. Once, that wasn't a big deal. Bill Durnan was Habs captain, and managed to put together a Hall-of-Fame career at the same time. Now, though, captains are expected to give more of their personal time at appearances and charity events. For a player like Price, who likes his privacy, that's not an appetizing trade-off. The Canucks tried to go back to having a goalie as captain with Roberto Luongo, but the appointment lasted only two years before he stepped down, citing the need to focus exclusively on goaltending. With that in mind, it's unlikely Price would either be asked to take, or accept, the captaincy in Montreal.

Other potential captains in Brendan Gallagher or P.K.Subban don't have the experience to be convincing in the role. In three years, either of them could take the "C," but not now. So, if Plekanec or Gorges aren't suitable captains for whatever reason they or management might have, and, assuming Marc Bergevin doesn't bring in the second coming of Mark Messier this summer, the team might be better off with leadership by committee. The question is whether a team is better off with no set leader than with one not quite cut out for the job.

In Montreal, if Brian Gionta is finishing his last year as a Canadien, the answer is, yes...no captain is better than the wrong captain. We know a lot about Brian Gionta. We just don't know who will be perfectly suited to fill the hole he'll leave when he goes.

1 comment:

Mike Safoniuk said...

Looking at a combination of how many years he's been with the team, a sense of calm that may be good guidance for the younger players, and just consistent performance I'd say Plekanec would be a good choice but I have the feeling that it's not something he wants to do. I think given all that is already asked of him on the ice he should be allowed to skip this role.

As you mention, Georges seems to want the captaincy but seems to talk too much for a real leader.

So my preference is for it to go to Prust. He has the respect of his team mates and is a stand up guy. When he is injured, as he inevitably will be, let Georges take on that role on the ice. Prust will still be the captain off the ice.