Intangibles are a controversial topic in today’s hockey community. We can’t pour leadership juice into an Erlenmeyer flask, plonk it over a Bunsen burner, and quantify what makes a good hockey captain, well, good. But most of us would agree on the traits we expect to find in a captain. There even seems to be a consensus on the idea of there being two major archetypes for leaders: those who speak very little and lead by example, and those who are field generals.
Captaincy seems like it carries a little extra weight and prestige for the New York Rangers because of the team’s original six roots. But, let’s be honest here, the captaincy is largely symbolic. You don’t need a letter on your jersey to be a leader and you don’t need to be an exceptional leader to end up getting a letter on your jersey.
For the first time since Oct. 5, 2014 the Rangers are without a captain now that Ryan McDonagh is a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and will be for a long time. As the regular season approaches, we can’t help but wonder who will be the 28th man to captain the Blueshirts.
Today, we’re going to examine one of the leading candidates for the captaincy. We’re going to talk about Mats Zuccarello.
The Case For
- All about heart. Zuccarello has won the coveted Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award three times since the 2013-14 season. The only other guys to win the award more than twice are Ryan Callahan and Adam Graves; that’s some pretty good company to keep. Zuccarello may not come from the Mark Messier mold, but he is absolutely capable of leading by example. He inspires his teammates and he doesn’t back down from anything or anyone.
- ZUUUCC. Henrik Lundqvist is revered; Zuccarello is adored. It’s hard to think of a player that means more to the fans and to the culture of the team than the Norwegian star. We also have ample evidence that Zuccarello’s teammates in New York have fallen in love with him because of his personality and the way that he plays the game. He is a guy you want in your locker room. He’s a glue guy, and he keeps things light off the ice; being a glue guy is definitely one way to be valuable to your club in a leadership role.
- Leading by example. The diminutive winger has had to earn everything the hard way in his career with the Rangers. He’s the ultimate underdog: he’s one of the NHL’s smallest players, he was never drafted, and he comes from a country that has only produced seven other NHLers. Zuccarello has also overcome frustrating coaching, demotions to the AHL, and a terrifying head injury. Through it all, he has persevered. If you’re in a management position, you want the kids that will be the future of your team to be around a guy like Zuccarello. How could you not?
- A new chapter. James Dolan thinks that the Rangers didn’t have great leadership last season. Maybe that will put some pressure on the front office to find and establish a leader or figurehead to help the team transition in the rebuild. The only time that the Rangers played a full season without a captain was the 2005-06 season — the year after the lockout and two years after Messier’s retirement. So, it’s a little unusual to the Blueshirts start the season without a captain. But that still doesn’t mean that they need one.
The Case Against
- Why the big hurry? This team is rebuilding right now, not contending for the Cup. There’s no pressing need to choose the next captain, not when there are already a handful of solid leaders who are still in the locker room, including Zuccarello. It’s also worth mentioning that the team’s shift in philosophy might mean that the organization wants a player from outside the current leadership group to fill that role.
- Quinn. David Quinn is a hands-on coach that excels at building relationships with his players. He’s down in the trenches. He’s involved. He’s rubbing shoulders, challenging guys, and keeping them grounded. Quinn knows how to motivate young men and provide guidance. So, you could say that the Rangers already have the leadership they were missing with Quinn.
- Trade bait. As much as it may pain some to admit, it makes a ton of sense to deal Zuccarello at this year’s deadline. He’s on the last year of his contract, he will be 31 in September, and he would bring back an absolute haul in a deal. Again, this team is rebuilding. What’s more valuable here, Zuccarello re-signing in New York — whether or not he’s the team’s next captain — or a trade package that would start at a first round pick and a great prospect?
- Kreider. Most folks seem to think that Zuccarello and Chris Kreider are the two leading candidates to become the next captain. And while Kreider is also trade bait, he’s younger than Zuccarello and is signed through next season. As a former Rangers draft pick, Kreider also feels like a more natural fit for the captaincy, for whatever that’s worth.
At the end of the day the Rangers should be in no hurry to name their next captain. And they certainly shouldn’t give the “C” to a guy who should be gone by March. Zuccarello is a great Ranger, and he will be considered one even if — or when — he gets moved at the deadline. And make no mistake, trading Zuccarello to the highest bidder at the end of February is the best way forward for this organization. One needs only look back at the message to the fans that Jeff Gorton and Glen Sather wrote last February.
This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy. Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender.
You can be a leader, and a captain, without wearing a letter. Knowing Zuccarello, he is going to do exactly that when training camp arrives. And that is why the Garden will always buzz with the sound of his name.