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‘C’ Change: Who will fill the NHL’s seven vacant captaincies?

With seven teams remaining without captains as the 2018-19 season approaches, who could step in to fill each role this coming season?

Over the past two seasons, the captaincy of seven teams has changed hands. Ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, Blake Wheeler, Alex Pietrangelo, Anze Kopitar, Derek MacKenzie and Connor McDavid were all named captains of their respective clubs. Last season, the ‘C’ was stitched to the jerseys of Roman Josi, Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal, albeit with the latter two players sharing the responsibility as co-captains of the Carolina Hurricanes.

And as the 2018-19 season approaches, chances are that group of seven sees a few new faces join the ranks. All told, there are seven vacant captaincies spread throughout the league, both longstanding or freshly relinquished. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance, have gone the longest of any club without a captain. Not since the 2014-15 season have they had a captain. The Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders, meanwhile, had their top leadership role vacated over the course of the off-season — the former by way of retirement, the latter by way of free agency.

So, who, if anyone, steps in and takes on the ‘C’ for the seven organizations without a captain?

ARIZONA COYOTES
It feels like the Coyotes are just pranking all of us at this point. Speculation ahead of last season upon Shane Doan’s retirement was that Oliver Ekman-Larsson was the captain-in-waiting, but an entire season came and went without ‘OEL’ stepping into the role. The thought, however, was that Arizona didn’t want to stitch the ‘C’ to his jersey when they weren’t sure if the franchise’s star blueliner was going to be sticking around. But when Ekman-Larsson inked his eight-year extension with the club, it seemed like the perfect time to announce him as the new captain, as well. But that, too, came and went without Ekman-Larsson getting the captaincy.

So, now we’re in another holding pattern, seemingly waiting for the inevitable without any timeline on when the inevitable will happen. And make no mistake, Ekman-Larsson is thoroughly deserving of the captaincy. He’s not only one of the organization’s foremost talents, he’s learned under Doan, has the respect of the team and proved his commitment to the Coyotes by inking his long-term pact.

BUFFALO SABRES
At some point in the not too distant future, the Sabres are going to follow the Oilers’ lead. Edmonton wasted no time in making 2015 No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid the team's captain, handing him the ‘C’ after he had played just 45 games in the NHL. And while Buffalo has had other options for a captain in recent years, the seat is being kept warm for Jack Eichel, the 2015 draft’s No. 2 overall selection, who will almost assuredly assume the role within the next season or two.

Eichel’s the right fit for the captaincy, too. Not that the top leadership role always has to go to a team’s star player, but Eichel is certainly that. The 21-year-old led the Sabres in both goals and points last season despite an injury-limited season, he stepped into a top-line role with heavy responsibility in all three zones and he’s shown growth every season he’s been in the NHL. But Eichel has also said all the right things off the ice. He wants more for the Sabres, he wants to be the one to finally bring Stanley Cup glory to Buffalo. And that kind of passion is exactly what the Sabres want to see from their next captain.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Leaving the captaincy vacant seems like the most obvious course of action. After all, the Islanders are going to have one heck of a time replacing John Tavares, who wore the ‘C’ for the past five seasons prior to his departure in free agency. That said, if Barry Trotz really wanted to push for a new captain, he would have a few options available to him.

For instance, Trotz could go with a player with past captaincy experience, such as Andrew Ladd. Ladd already wears an ‘A’ in New York, so it wouldn’t be all that sizeable leap to bump him up in the leadership hierarchy. Plus, he has five seasons left on his contract, so he’s likely to remain an Islander until New York either trades him or he retires. Or maybe Trotz instead chooses one of his top blueliners, such as Nick Leddy or Johnny Boychuk. Both are reliable rearguards despite a tough season in 2017-18, and either would surely be worthy of a letter. That neither wears one now, though, might be a hint that such a scenario won’t come to fruition. Truth be told, of all the vacant captaincies, the Islanders’ might be the one that remains unfilled the longest.

NEW YORK RANGERS
The Rangers’ trade of Ryan McDonagh to the Lightning left the organization without a captain. (It also marked the second time in five seasons New York shipped their captain to Tampa Bay, previously sending Ryan Callahan packing in 2013-14.) Now, it’s up to new coach David Quinn to decide who will don the ‘C’ as he prepares to navigate what could be some rough waters with the Rangers over the next few seasons.

The reality of the situation, however, is that now probably isn’t the time to name a captain. While Mats Zuccarello might stand out as a top candidate, his expiring contract is a recipe for a deadline rental. Longtime alternate Marc Staal also doesn’t quite fit the bill given he’s become maligned in recent years and entrenched in frequent trade chatter. Chris Kreider could, of course, be an option, but his own soon-to-be free agent status makes one wonder if he’ll be in New York for the long haul. From there, the options only get thinner.

The best play for Quinn and Co. might be to hold off for now and see how things shake out after this season. And when the time is right, it sure seems as though Brady Skjei could be right for the role. He appears to be turning into a top-pairing defenseman before the Rangers’ very eyes, and if he continues to grow, it’s hard to imagine many would argue with handing him the captaincy.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
This was supposed to be a no-brainer. When 2016 No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews burst onto the scene and shattered all expectations over the course of one campaign, it appeared to be written in the stars that he would be Toronto’s next captain, the first to wear the ‘C’ for the Maple Leafs since Dion Phaneuf’s departure. But then came free agency and the Maple Leafs’ stunning signing of John Tavares, and it now appears that any road to the captaincy will have to go directly through No. 91. And who could argue that, really?

Tavares has long been one of the league’s premier talents, he has two top-three finishes in Hart Trophy voting throughout his nine-season career, has shown consistent excellence in all three zones and, most of all, he has the experience of playing in a leadership role. For five seasons, he wore the ‘C’ for the Islanders while playing in a massive market and never once faltered. He’s proven his mettle as a captain, and the safe bet for the Maple Leafs would be to take the pressure of the captaincy off of Matthews and place it onto a more experienced veteran.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Something about even mentioning the Canucks’ vacant captaincy feels wrong. Henrik Sedin’s eight-season run as captain somehow felt much longer, like he had been wearing it since the mid-2000s. It’s almost hard to remember a time when Sedin wasn’t the captain, as if the Roberto Luongo days were some sort of dream and the letter transitioned off the sweater of Markus Naslund and right onto that of Sedin’s. Yet, here we are, with Henrik and Daniel both quietly retiring at the end of the 2017-18 campaign and Vancouver beginning its search for a new captain.

The good news for the Canucks, though, is that they appear to have a captain-in-the-making in Bo Horvat. A steady and responsible two-way pivot, Horvat made his transition into a top-line role last season and flourished with a 22-goal, 44-point campaign that would have seen him set a new career-best point total had his season not been shortened by injury. The whispers of Horvat as Sedin’s successor have grown over the past few seasons, and chances are that when the Canucks are ready to pass on the captaincy, it will be Horvat who gets it.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The expansion Golden Knights went their entire inaugural campaign, all the way through to the Stanley Cup final, without a captain. And when they did need someone to step in to fill the duties of a captain, such as when they were set to hoist the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference champions, it was Deryk Engelland who was sent to accept the trophy. And while Engelland will be back this season, chances are he’ll wear an ‘A’ again as he skates on another one-year deal in his adopted home town.

So, who wears the ‘C’ then? Well, William Karlsson or Jonathan Marchessault would be two Grade A choices, though only the latter has signed on long-term with the organization. Free agent signee Paul Stastny wouldn’t be the worst choice, either, as the responsible veteran center has all the qualities teams usually look for in a captain. But, if Vegas really wanted to go with the out-of-left-field selection, would it be worthwhile to explore the option of making Marc-Andre Fleury the captain? The Golden Knights have been everything but traditional, so why not make Fleury, inarguably the face of the franchise and already the team’s most beloved player, the captain?

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