|Edmonton's longest-serving current Oiler and potential captain candidate, Shawn Horcoff, battles with Mark Giordano of the Flames. (Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club) |
The passing of the torch. The youth movement. Out with the old, in with the new. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a changing of the guard on the ice, and off, in Oil Country. The Edmonton Oilers are rapidly becoming one of the youngest teams in the league and, in order to make room for the younger players and to make them feel comfortable in their NHL environment, this has led to the necessary shedding of some veteran presence. That’s not to say that it’s a veteran-free room, because it certainly is not, but nobody’s mistaken here: this is the Kids Team and, by virtue, the kids’ team.
So, what then do we make of the vacant captaincy? After holding it for 3 seasons, Ethan Moreau returned the “C” when he was claimed off of waivers by the Columbus Blue Jackets in June. Prior to Moreau’s reign, the designation was carried by Jason Smith, the longest serving captain in team history (’01-’02 to ’06-‘07). Only once in team history has a player under the age of 25 held the captaincy. Care to take a guess? Yeah, that guy. #99. Gretzky. A handful of others were in their late 20’s: Corson, Weight, Buchberger etc. Stereotypically, captains in the NHL are veteran players with a lot of around-the-block experience to share. But, perhaps the trend is starting to shift. Of the 30 teams, 7 have captains that are 25 or under: Jonathan Toews (CHI), Sidney Crosby (PIT), Alexander Ovechkin (WAS), Dustin Brown (LAK), Shea Weber (NAS) and Dion Phaneuf (TOR) and Mike Richards (PHI).
Veteran or star of the future? Best player or role player? Vocal or modest? All questions that the Oilers need to answer before naming a new captain. As I see it, the team has 5 options:Shawn Horcoff
The longest serving current Oilers player, Horcoff has been here since 2001-02. Through the ups and downs, Horcoff has been happy to consider himself an Oiler for life. He was, of course, rewarded handsomely for that in July of 2008 when the team signed him to a 6 year, $33M contract extension. That deal will keep him an Oiler through the 2014-2015 season, and that’s part of the argument in his favour: he’ll be here long term. He’s also got a decent chance to be a consistent player in the top 6 and will be a consistent participant on the power play and penalty kill. He might not be the best player, but he’ll get his minutes. Perhaps more importantly, he’s a fiercely hard worker off the ice and a shining example of the dedication it takes to be a professional athlete. Ryan Whitney
The fresh voice, Whitney didn’t mince words in assessing the situation when he got to town last year via the Visnovsky deal with Anaheim. With his thick Boston accent, Whitney called it straight down the middle and forced an immediate public accountability on the team. At 27 years of age, Whitney is a “tweener” and will relate well to veterans and rookies alike. He’s also the best defenseman on the team and will play close to 30 minutes on a lot of nights.Ales Hemsky
At this moment, widely considered the best player on the team, Hemsky will be pushed again this year to realize his full potential. Whatever factors you want to throw into the equation, it’s obvious to even the most casual observer that Hemsky has more points in him to give than we’ve seen to this point. He’s not the most vocal player in the room, but if willing to accept the captaincy, perhaps the “C” on his chest would give Hemsky the momentum to kick it to the next level. No longer would he be able to be last on, first off at practice. Sam Gagner
If the decision-makers wanted to name a captain right now that represented the youth movement on the team, Gagner is the only choice. He took a giant step forward in off-ice presence last year, finding his voice amongst his teammates and in the media. At just 21 years old, he’s also got 3 full seasons under his belt and a pretty good lay of the land. There’s nothing to suggest that he won’t be here long term and, though he’ll be given a run for the money on the depth chart by some of the other young talent, he’ll undoubtedly remain an impact player going forward.Captainless
The wait-and-see option, patient until a young voice emerges. Taylor Hall
, Jordan Eberle
and Magnus Paajarvi
will all participate in their rookie NHL season this year and, perhaps, the leader of the future is in that group. On ice performance is one thing, and we certainly expect greatness from this trio, but off ice leadership is a different quality. I see it in Hall and Eberle for sure (Paajarvi is a bit more unknown due to language barrier) but not to the point that either is ready to be an NHL captain. But, if the Oilers coaching staff and management see their future captain in there, it might be tempting to wait a year or two and keep the position vacant until the heir is ready to ascend to the throne.
I believe that a great captain can make a world of difference to a team, and a poor captain can certainly bring a world of uncertainty and turmoil. Many players will tell you that they’ll be the same guy with or without the “C” on their chest and, while that may be true, the man who sits in the middle of the room will be looked up to. He’ll have a significant impact on the mood and tone of the team, how they carry themselves, how they respond to various situations. It’s not an honour to be bestowed flippantly or hurriedly. This team needed a change in the leadership structure and it’s half complete; the vacancy has been created. How they fill it is crucial to the path of the team in the coming years.Dan Tencer is the host of Inside Sports, heard Monday to Friday from 6pm-9pm on 630 CHED. He also hosts the pre-game and post-game shows on 630 CHED and the Oilers Radio Network.