Tuesday October 6th, 2009

The NHL alphabet used to begin with the letter C.

There was no role on a team as sacrosanct as captain. There was no responsibility, on the ice and off, that carried so much honor or weight. Compared to most other sports, the significance of the hockey captaincy still resonates -- certainly it has greater heft than the letter on Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek's jersey, guys meeting at midfield for a coin flip or the arm band of a soccer player who casually flips it to a replacement if he is coming out for a substitute -- but the institution of the NHL captaincy has eroded as it has evolved in recent years.

The hockey C-word used to be pretty straightforward: the captain was selected or sometimes elected and, well, that was pretty much it. The letter would stick, maybe forever as it did for Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic or maybe temporarily as it did Mike Modano in Dallas and a young Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay. Your captain was usually your best player (non-goalie, but more on that in a second) and when he wasn't, he still was a fine player and the emotional center of the team. There was transparency here, a designated player and a clear chain of command.

Now under the guise of underlining the significance of the position, some NHL teams actually have undermined the position. The most flagrant example was the Minnesota Wild under former coach Jacques Lemaire, who ran a captain of the month club. (If this is March, it must be Jim Dowd's turn. Congratulations to new GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards for stopping the merry-go-round, taking the Velcro off the letter and having it stitched onto the deserving Mikko Koivu's sweater.)

The Buffalo Sabres couldn't choose between Column A and Column B and used to rotate Chris Drury and Daniel Brière. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis was too clever by half last season when he named goalie Roberto Luongo as captain, skirting league rules that, since Montreal's Bill Durnan in the late 1940s, have prohibited goaltenders from serving in the role. Gillis' position that Luongo deserved the captaincy because he was the undisputed leader certainly contained an ounce of truth, but other dressing-room alpha netminders in modern times, such as Patrick Roy, never felt slighted by not having the adornment of a letter. The Vancouver captaincy came across not as an honor but a gimmicky form of flattery, which might have succeeded with the finicky Luongo, who signed a long-term contract with the Canucks last summer.

Now two of the NHL heritage franchises, Toronto and Montreal, are temporarily trading in one captain for three alternates. This is the second straight year, since Mats Sundin left, that the Maple Leafs have withheld the C. GM Brian Burke's argument that "we're Big Blue" and can't simply turn the captaincy over to anyone given the Toronto tradition sounds appealing, but, in fact, defenseman Tomas Kaberle, one of the three Leafs with an "A", could have worn the letter comfortably last season. (The Leafs are expected to name a captain in November.)

Because Montreal GM Bob Gainey blew up his team -- captain Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and Mike Komisarek (now a Toronto alternate captain) all left via free agency -- the Canadiens probably are right to be more circumspect about the transition, but newcomer Brian Gionta is worthy of the weight.

"These teams have had a tremendous amount of turnover, so I can understand waiting until you get your team assembled (before naming a captain)," San Jose captain Rob Blake told On the Fly. "Maybe in a few months somebody will emerge as the guy."

Blake, who turns 40 in December, is not the longest serving NHL captain, but no one has had a better vantage point from which to observe the changes in the role. He first wore the "C" during the 1995-96 season, succeeding Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles after Gretzky was traded to St. Louis. (This isn't quite like Gene Bartow following John Wooden at UCLA, but close enough.) Blake held the job until he was traded to Colorado, but he would wear the letter again in Los Angeles, in 2007-08, after being repatriated by the Kings.

While the playoff-challenged Sharks were desperate for a change in the official leadership -- Patrick Marleau never seemed comfortable in the role -- Blake's ascension was mildly surprising. After GM Doug Wilson and coach Todd McClellan stripped Marleau of his captaincy and took an "A" off Joe Thornton, prime-of-his-career defenseman Dan Boyle seemed a more logical candidate than Blake, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason. (Boyle and the back-in-good-graces Thornton were named as alternates.) Blake said he wouldn't have taken the job without Marleau's blessing, which came without reservations.

"One of the differences from when I first was captain to now is that then you used to go in and talk to the coach by yourself," Blake said. "Now, you're going in with two or three guys. It's not about the captain as much as the leadership group."

The concept of a "leadership group" has been kicking around since at least the 1970s when Scotty Bowman had a counsel of Canadiens veterans that served as a liaison between his imperious self and the team. Now it is standard. Practically every coach designates a coterie of players with whom he meets separately to take the pulse of the team, although Blake says younger players are finding their ways onto these committees. "With the number of young players having an impact in the league," Blake said, "I think it's important to include them."

The job of the captain also has expanded. Apart from being a conduit, a social director and the emotional fulcrum of a team, the captain is supposed to be the oracle, available to the media after every game. When Blake started in the role in Los Angeles, that meant answering the questions from a couple of beat writers, the odd microphone, and maybe a TV camera. With the dotcom/sports radio boom, Blake says the responsibility has to be divvied up, which the Sharks do with their veterans.

"The captaincy is still a big part of the history of our game, but no doubt it's changed," Blake says. "Ideally, you want all players taking some responsibility, all being leaders."

True enough. But to borrow from Gilbert and Sullivan, when everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody.

Other than Washington's estimable Alexander Ovechkin looking like he has been shot from a cannon -- our expert guess is that he will cool from his current 246-point pace -- the most intriguing aspect of the start of the 2009-10 season has been goaltending.

Some of it has been remarkable, starting with Philadelphia's Ray Emery, who marked his return from a year of Russian exile with a shutout in the opener. The goalie on a razor's edge has been more than solid on the ice for the stacked Flyers. If he can be a solid dressing room force -- playing nice with others, being on time, etc. -- the Flyers, who seem to have been searching for the right answer in net since the early years of Ron Hextall's career two decades ago, might be on to at least a short-term fix.

Montreal's Carey Price, who stopped 77 of 81 shots and essentially stole two overtime wins for a team devastated by the loss of defenseman Andrei Markov (torn ankle tendon) in the opener, and Colorado's Craig Anderson, who has the reputation for playing better when he faces an obscenely high number of shots -- somehow you're thinking the Avalanche will oblige here -- also were standouts.

But two NHL powers should feel queasy about what they witnessed saw in goal on the other side of the Atlantic.

Generally Detroit takes a two-goal lead and sticks it in a lockbox. Thank you for coming, drive home safely. The Red Wings almost never blow a comfortable cushion like that and then lose in regulation, but it happened twice -- to division-rival St. Louis in Stockholm in a disastrous homecoming for the NHL's Team Sweden.

Chris Osgood was middling in the opener, but backup Jimmy Howard looked lost in the second game against the feral Blues, who were backstopped by Ty Conklin. The journeyman Conklin, now playing behind Chris Mason, was Osgood's caddie last season when the veteran took what amounted to a regular-season sabbatical. The Red Wings succession plan was always to let Conklin walk via free agency and give Howard his shot, an extension of the team philosophy that money is invested more wisely on skaters than on big-ticket goalies. If Osgood can return to his level of the 2009 playoffs when he was one game away from winning the Conn Smythe, Carrot Top could be his backup. If not, well, cap-strapped GM Ken Holland might have to find someone who can give the Red Wings 25 to 30 quality starts in goal. In other words, another Conklin.

The Chicago Blackhawks took three of four points in Helsinki against Florida, but their No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet took a beating. This was the same old story: Huet was exposed to shots high to the glove side. (He drops into his butterfly too soon and, like many Europeans, does not have a particularly strong catching hand.) Huet's backup, Antti Niemi, blanked the Panthers the next day. While Niemi is green, he surely is worth nurturing because when the Blackhawks hoist the Stanley Cup -- and it could be as soon as next June -- it will not be Huet doing the heavy lifting.

Nor will Vesa Toskala be the No. 1 goalie when Toronto finds its way back to the playoffs. Burke sweet-talked Jonas Gustavsson, the Swedish Elite League star, into signing last summer. He also hired famed goalie coach François Allaire away from Anaheim. The marriage of a big goalie and a coach who can perfect his butterfly style should be made in heaven. Given the 10 goals that Toronto allowed in two games -- Gustavsson played the final two periods in Washington after Toskala was beaten for three in the first period -- coach Ron Wilson needs to find a way to cultivate one of Burke's biggest and best new toys.

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