Who Should Round Out Blueshirts’ Leadership Group?

Marc Staal and Mats Zuccarello are the only two players currently assigned a letter on their jersey.

Leadership is a quality that is either undervalued or overstated given the circumstances you find yourself in. It is something there are tons of definitions for, and in sports it sometimes is looked at as an individual who is very vocal and looks to take charge and ownership of a situation. There certainly is no shortage of quotes when it comes to leadership, and one of my favorite comes from two-time NBA champion with the New York Knicks and former United States Senator Bill Bradley; “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” Simply stated you want someone who can guide others, motivate them, and help put them in a position where they are able develop and move forward.

Currently the two players assigned to role of alternate captain are Marc Staal and Mats Zuccarello. Staal is in his 13th season with the team, and Zuccarello is in his 9th on Broadway. Henrik Lundqvist is an unofficial leader as goalies can’t wear letters, and the team will assuredly designate at least one more player before the season starts. The question at hand is “who should that player be?”

Going back to Bradley’s quote,  I think this is apropos to the situation the Rangers are in, because they are rebuilding and developing their players is a vital part of it. Hockey is a team sport in which the best players, excluding goalies, are generally on the ice for only one-third of the game, so great teams need a number of talented individuals working together in unison to achieve a common goal. The Rangers are somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of roster construction as they have a balance of youngsters, “middle-aged” players, and veterans.

This year the Rangers are going to try to be as good as they can be, but there aren’t any expectations for the team which started an exodus of players last February. With a number of players with expiring contracts in the next two years in tow, don’t be surprised to see the team have another major selloff if the team performs similar to last season. With that in mind, the team has a few directions they could go in when it comes to adding another voice to their leadership group. That could be in the form of a captain’s “C” or an alternate’s “A”. Before I give my opinion, here are candidates for the two directions the team could go in.

Option 1: Pick a Veteran Voice

Candidates: Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast

This is one of the easiest of options, and one that could be the most likely. Kevin Shattenkirk was an alternate captain with the St. Louis Blues, captain of Boston University, and wore various letters for Team USA when he was a younger player in prospect tournaments. He is one of the older players on the roster and someone David Quinn has a great relationship with. Giving Shattenkirk an “A” would hardly be a surprise, and would be fine in the interim given the fact that he has three years left on his deal including this season.

Jeff Gorton is on record in saying he feels Kreider is ready for more of a leadership role, and that may be a giveaway that he will be a permanent captain this season. In August Gorton said, “Chris is not a young player any more. He’s in his prime years and because of that, he’ll be good for the younger players to lean on. I feel that he’s ready for that role.”

Kreider will be entering his sixth full season with the team and that makes him one of the more veteran forwards. He’s been a popular suggestion to be named captain, but the fact that he’s under contract for just two more seasons including this one complicates things. Giving Kreider an “A” for now would make sense with the option for him to earn the “C” if he signs an extension in the final year of his deal. He will be 29 in July of 2020, and the prospect of him being extended will likely depend on what point the Rangers are at in their rebuild. There’s no reason to push him out the door, but he could end up being more valuable in trade to the Blueshirts than the production he’d provide in his 30s.

Fast may seem like an odd name here, but he would be a fair pick if the team just wanted to punt on making a major decision. He’s a heart and soul guy who leaves it all out on the ice, and embodies the standard of working hard. If Fast were selected it would signal to me that the Rangers want to play the waiting game on the rest of their leaders until they can install a whole new group. By this I mean waiting until Zuccarello is moved at the deadline, if that’s the plan, also waiting until if Staal is bought out in the offseason.

Option B: Pick Someone Who Will Grow With The Team

Candidates: Brady Skjei, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes

The Rangers put their complete confidence in Skjei by signing him to six-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.25 million this offseason. He is one of two skaters with a long-term deal on the books, and giving him an “A” would state that the Rangers look at him as someone who will be a pillar of the team once they are a contender, and that they want him to grow into a leadership role as the team continues this process. At 24, Skjei represents the immediate future of the blue line. Staal is 31, Shattenkirk is 29, as is Brendan Smith, and the rest of the defense long-term includes youngsters like Neal Pionk and Tony DeAngelo. When it comes to defenders who will be on the team once they are a contender, the list at this point begins and ends with Skjei. It would be an understandable decision, but I doubt the Rangers will add a letter to Skjei as he starts the first year of his mega extension.

Zibanejad, 25, is starting his third season with the Rangers, and his seventh in the league. He is under contract for the next four seasons, and after this season he has a no movement clause that will go into effect. If he remains with the team that would indicate the Rangers feel he is part of the solution, and therefore someone of importance that can set an example for other young forwards. With that said, there’s always the chance he’s traded and the team extends Kevin Hayes long-term instead. It is a one or the other proposition due to the fact that the team has a bevy of talented center prospects.

Lias Andersson is one of those prospects who is an important part of the rebuild, and there is something to be said about having a fellow Swede in Zibanejad around in a leadership and mentoring role to help him along initially. Andersson himself is highly touted for his leadership ability and someone who could be a future captain of the team, and that prospect could impact who the Rangers eventually name.

As mentioned above, it could end up being a one or the other situation with Hayes and Zibanejad, and that’s why Hayes could be a dark horse candidate to wear an “A”. Hayes has been an elite 5v5 contributor league-wide since debuting in 2014, and a perfect example of a player to follow in order to be successful in the NHL in 2018. He is on a one-year deal, but this is where he wants to be, and he feels that the organization and him both benefit from this situation.

Putting an “A” on him would be another sign that the franchise believes in him, and that they intend to keep him long term. Talk is cheap, and giving him a letter would be a situation of actions speaking louder than words. If they were to do it though, I think it would be in a situation where two players are given a letter in which one wear it at home and the other on the road.

What Do I Think Will Happen?

This is probably anticlimactic and boring, but I personally I think the Rangers are going to make Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Kreider alternate captains with one wearing a letter at home and the other on the road. Kreider briefly wore a letter on a rotating basis last year, and I think Shattenkirk would have too had he not been injured.

Based on what the team did last year, I think Zuccarello will be traded at the deadline and that would bring the group down to three. That is why I don’t list the option of him being promoted to captain. I also don’t see Staal getting a promotion, because his future with the team long-term is also unknown given the many defenders within the organization who can make the team in the next two years.

Post-deadline, I could see one of Hayes or Zibanejad, depending on each’s status, get a rotating “A” for the remainder of the season.

The 2018-19 season should be a benchmark and “stress test” year. David Quinn and company should use it to see what they have in certain players, and then develop a list of things that the team will need in order to become a true contender. That includes identifying who the future leaders should be, and I have a feeling Quinn will figure that out pretty quickly given his reputation of identifying talent and character.

What I Would Love to Happen

Hank is the unofficial leader of the team already, so why not just let him paint a “C” on his mask and call it a day?

Roberto Luongo unofficially served as captain during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 season, and I see no reason why Hank can’t do the same in conjunction with one of Kreider/Shattenkirk getting the third “A” for formality purposes.

The NHL officially outlawed goalie captains prior to the start of the 1948-49 season because of complaints that then captain of the Montreal Canadiens Bill Durnan was leaving his crease to convene with officials at strategic points of the game in order to give his team a breather. That’s why Luongo’s captaincy wasn’t officially recognized.

While a fun idea, I doubt it is going to happen.

Final Thoughts

Overall I think the Rangers have a good bunch of guys, and it isn’t going to matter this year who the captain or additional alternate(s) will be. There also bound to be an abundance of players without a letter such as Matt Beleskey, Adam McQuaid, Brendan Smith and Ryan Spooner who have been around the league for a number of years. In the beginning I said leadership is both undervalued at times and overrated. By that I meant that having good leaders can be important to a team, but filling a void for sake of filling a void is overrated. The team has the benefit of time on their side, and a number of good candidates to choose from depending on the direction they decide to go in. Ultimately the players in the room know who the leaders are regardless of the extra letter on the front of the jersey, and there should be no rush to make a long-term decision as to who the next major leader of the team will be.