There are seven NHL teams heading into camp later this month without a captain, but only one is looking to address a vacancy that was previously filled by 16 Hall of Famers.
The Canadiens are left weighing their options after the departure this summer of Brian Gionta to the Sabres. Fortunately, there's no shortage of worthy candidates. Grizzled defenseman Andrei Markov, after 13 seasons in bleu, blanc et rouge, would be a safe and honorable choice. Gionta has said he would prefer Montreal to go with Tomas Plekanec or Travis Moen to fill his skates. Top scorer Max Pacioretty has both the on-ice chops and the respect of the room to do the job.
For any other franchise in the league, those players would be an excellent choice. But the Habs are different, aren't they? This is a club for which the torch of leadership has been carried by such luminaries as Toe Blake, Rocket Richard, Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey and Saku Koivu (who announced his retirement on Wednesday). Exceptional players and exceptional men who were able not only to set a higher standard, but to also rally the troops to meet it.
There's really only player who lives up to that charismatic measure on this team: P.K. Subban.
The gregarious defenseman has bypassed goalie Carey Price not just as the face of the franchise, but also as its soul. As Subban goes, so go the Canadiens, a fact the team recognized with the franchise record-setting eight-year, $72-million contract that it awarded to him in August.
But it's not simply Subban's ability to set the pace and the tone on the team that makes him the ideal choice. It's the way he goes about doing it. His passion is on display every shift, as well as his physical and mental commitment. The speed and guile of his game evoke memories of the Flying Frenchmen. And he has backed up all of his swagger with a Norris Trophy and an Olympic gold medal.
The C in Montreal might be the heaviest burden in the league, but Subban is up to the challenge.
“I think that I’d embrace it,” he told the Canadian Press during an NHL Media Tour stop on Tuesday. “Added responsibility to me makes a player better. I think I’ve accomplished a lot in a short time in this league and I’ve earned the respect of my peers and my opponents to command the respect that a captain deserves. I really believe that I’ve earned a lot of respect in this league, both on and off the ice.”
He added that he sees a captain as someone who’s “able to perform on the ice and bring it for their teammates in … the toughest moments.”
That's one area where Subban's detractors can make a good argument against him. After a pair of brilliant playoff performances last spring against the Lightning and the Bruins—the Habs simply wouldn't have gotten past Boston without him—he was roundly criticized for his struggles against the loss to the Rangers in the conference finals
Fair? Absolutely. And that's just a hint of the scrutiny that would come his way were he to wear the C. But it's worth remembering that while Subban is not yet fully formed as a player, he has matured significantly the past two seasons, both on and off the ice. And it's off the ice where his worthiness really shines. He's shown Béliveau-esque eloquence with the media during rough spots, as he did time and again last season when coach Michel Therrien was seemingly setting him up to fail. And when the going's good, Subban is religious about deflecting praise and focusing on the team concept.
The Canadiens themselves aren't yet fully formed. This is a team with a young core, one that's still a few years away from reaching its potential. A supporting group of veteran leaders like Markov and Plekanec can provide the experience the kids need, but only Subban can establish the identity the franchise needs.
He may not be French, but Subban is the player who can get the Canadiens truly flying again.