Inside the NHL
One of the more unusual details surrounding last season’s debut Kraken squad was the naming of a captain whose departure was all but assured before the campaign was even two months old.
The Kraken had acquired longtime Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano in the July 2021 NHL expansion draft. Their idea was to either try to extend Giordano’s expiring contract beyond the season if the team stayed in contention or flip him by the March trade deadline.
Thankfully, this season, with the Kraken seeking stability, continuity and further sports community inroads, they likely won’t have another lame-duck captain. That is, if they even choose one.
Kraken general manager Ron Francis said Monday that he’ll discuss with coach Dave Hakstol this week “whether or not we want to have a captain and then go from there. But most likely we will see how [training] camp and preseason go before making a final decision.”
NHL teams have gone without captains before. The Boston Bruins won Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972 without one. The Vegas Golden Knights and New York Rangers reached the Cup Final in 2018 and 2014 minus a designated captain.
The Kraken are one of seven teams without a captain, though the Flames — who’ve yet to replace Giordano — are the only playoff squad with a vacancy. Good teams usually fill the captain’s spot, which carries more responsibility in hockey than other sports.
Hockey captains are expected to lead by example on and off the ice and serve as a team spokesman with the media and as the only player authorized to speak to the referee during games. While often not the team’s best player, they do need self-confidence and a seriousness about them worthy of others’ respect.
Teams often allow players to pick captains by secret ballot, though the Kraken — given a lack of familiarity within their expansion squad — had hockey operations staff and coaches choose Giordano and four alternate captains a year ago. Should they go with a captain this season, they’ll have three obvious candidates in alternates Yanni Gourde, Jordan Eberle and Adam Larsson.
For now I’d say they should name one. Having a captain denotes a certain permanence, and the last message the Kraken need to send is that they’re still too in flux to figure out who’s supposed to lead them.
And if it were up to me, Gourde, 30, would be a close choice over Larsson, 29, and Eberle, 32.
Gourde and Larsson are under contract three more seasons, so there’s continuity. Eberle has only two contract seasons remaining, so that may factor.
All three exude leadership extending beyond the ice. Eberle, whose primary language is English, often appears the most polished with the media.
But Gourde, a French Canadian, and Swedish native Larsson speak more than one language and that can help unite teammates. So can on-ice play, with all three letting strong performance do their biggest talking.
Larsson was the only Kraken player to play all 82 games last season, and teammates sure noticed. Hakstol was raving about Larsson’s team impact at season’s end.
Eberle was the franchise’s first All-Star and led the team in scoring much of the season. When Matty Beniers needed guidance breaking into the league, Eberle was made his linemate. When the team’s struggling play required some accountability, Eberle was often the media’s go-to guy.
Like Eberle, Gourde was also called upon often as a de facto spokesman and excels at breaking down components of a game. As a Stanley Cup champion in Tampa Bay, he knows the daily price that must be paid and isn’t shy about sharing details.
Gourde never took a shift off. He kept practices light with a wry sense of humor and introduced teammates to a board game called Super Tock to help them bond and pass the time on charter flights.
It wasn’t surprising that teammates and coaches voted Gourde winner of the Guyle Fielder Award for “perseverance, hustle and dedication.” Gourde also won the Fan Favorite Award, showing that his appeal transcends the team.
That’s why, the captaincy being somewhat of a popularity contest, I’d say Gourde edges out his two capable teammates. Plus, Gourde’s remaining contract years provide continuity in the captaincy for a franchise needing to demonstrate it’s ready to advance beyond the starting gate.
As to why the team wouldn’t pick a captain, there’s an argument it might build around Beniers if he shows this season he’s ready for the role.
But that’s not a good enough reason to wait. As impressive as Beniers looked in April, he’s only 19, with 10 games of NHL experience.
Even Wayne Gretzky wasn’t made captain of the Edmonton Oilers until his fifth NHL season and sixth major pro campaign. By then he was a four-time league MVP.
Sure, there have been captains as young as 19, but Connor McDavid with Edmonton and Sidney Crosby with Pittsburgh were widely viewed as generational talents. Gabriel Landeskog was the NHL’s Rookie of the Year the season before he became captain in 2012 of a last-place Colorado team. Vincent Lecavalier was deep into his second season in 2000 with a bad Tampa Bay team when he became captain.
Beniers isn’t McDavid or Crosby. And the upgraded Kraken aren’t Lecavalier’s early Lightning squads, or the Avalanche team Landeskog first captained. The Kraken are trying to sell the NHL in a new, crowded sports market and hope to contend for a playoff spot this season.
Besides, we don’t even know whether Beniers will be the Kraken’s best center, or get eclipsed by No. 4 overall draft pick Shane Wright. Designating Beniers or Wright as a future captain now seems premature, akin to forcing square pegs into round holes when you’ve already got good round pegs to begin with.
Better to name a present-day captain and give those young players a chance to acclimate for two or three seasons. Then you can worry about their future captaincy once they’ve built a solid case.
For now, that case has already been made by others.