American Team Captains: Are They All the Same?

With six captaincies still vacant in the NHL and the recent anointments of American-born forwards in St. Louis and New York, I thought it was worth a look into whether any more Team USA representatives are likely to don “Cs” for the first time this year, and what the similarities are between the current team captains hailing from the good ol’ U-S-of-A.
My Disclaimer Regarding International Competition; Skip Ahead if You Just Want to Read About the American “Cs” and the Six Vacancies.
Before we get into the discussion, I want to say that international competitions and representations make me feel a little uncomfortable for a couple reasons. For one, aren’t we supposed to be working toward a global community? It’s interesting to me that we of the higher GDP per capita nations always speak of improving the quality of life in other countries, but then put paint on our faces and wave flags around, screaming about how we want, no, need to beat these perceived lesser nations in a sporting event that would otherwise have 80% of watchers mindlessly rooting against the more developed national squad purely on the basis of cheering on the underdog. In hockey, we don’t have as widespread a range of these occurrences as exists in soccer purely on the basis of the smaller number of nations that play hockey at a national level. So while at the World Cup every team not from Europe, Brazil or Argentina is a decided underdog, the landscape of international hockey is not as littered with upset opportunities. Belarus, Germany, Latvia, Switzerland and Norway represented the long shots at the 2010 Olympic tournament, which meant that those smaller hockey national programs made up only 42% of the field.

Another reason I’m annoyed with international competitions these days is that it feels contrived because many players are best friends, linemates and groomsmen with/for guys on other national rosters. Hell, even Lindsey Vonn constantly talks every winter about how her best friend is fellow alpine skier, but German representative Maria Riesch. Vonn had to brush off rumors and allegations that she didn’t get along with countrywoman and competitor Julia Mancuso, which led to some rather uncomfortable interviews in which both women said they were once friends, then weren’t, and are now alright with each other. Two of the three statements came across as true.
I don’t mean to take this conversation out of the hockey world, but my point is that perhaps we’ve outgrown the idea of international competition. It surely shouldn’t be done away with, as it has some seriously positive effects on sport. The men’s olympic ice hockey tournament is amazing. For those two weeks, the players seem to really care, and it offers us a chance to see what the talent overload of the NHL might look like if there were only eight teams in the league. But, it’s not the NHL.
Hockey hooliganism doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem that it is for soccer in the international realm, but let’s remember that we didn’t get the chance to see what would have happened if the nation’s team failed to win its do-or-die game in Vancouver. For most of us in the “civilized world,” international competitions of sport are treated the way they should be: as games that are important to us at the moment. But it’s when we start getting young fans from warring or recently warring nations, specifically a few of those from the Balkans, that the hooliganism of the whole setup comes to play. Since none of those nations have ever sniffed the championship division of the IIHF, we haven’t had to see the same kind of hooliganism in international hockey.
Backes, Brown & Callahan
Alright, four-paragraph disclaimers aside, I loved the choices that the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers made in naming American forwards David Backes and Ryan Callahan as team captains this past week, and that’s not just because both players have been hard-working members of my fantasy team in the past two years (and I only have one team). Backes and Callahan are beauties in the sense of the word. They never place blame on others, they throw their bodies around and come up with point totals that transcend their God-given talents. In fact, their games are easily comparable to one of the two other American-born captains in the league today, Dustin Brown. The 26 year-old from Ithica, N.Y. has played all but 10 games since the lockout for the Los Angeles Kings. Brown has scored between 53 and 60 points in each of the last four seasons, and is always amongst the league leaders in hits. And like Callahan, Backes (once upon a time), and the only other team captain from the USA, Montreal’s Brian Gionta, Brown plays right wing.
Here is a breakdown of how Brown, Backes and Callahan compared in 2010-11:

Dustin Brown
David Backes
Ryan Callahan
  • STP = special teams points
Obviously there are more than a couple stats here that stand out in their similarities between the players. The point totals, skating time, hits and special teams points are all within a very small range. Of note are how close their goal totals are to their assist totals, which screams of forwards who have limited talent in comparison to top-level NHL forwards. The point totals themselves may leave something to be desired, but the goal totals are very solid. This is indicative of a group of players that are limited in their creativity, but that work hard enough to finish plays. I think this best describes these three players who will now wear the “C” for their teams.

Dustin Brown has worn the “C” in La-la land for three years already.
Another stat to notice is the hit totals. Had Callahan not gotten injured, he would have probably won the scoring title between these three guys, as his scoring pace when extrapolated over just 80 games would have produced 31 goals and 33 assists. Additionally, Callahan could have been counted on for 299 hits, which would have been just 1 shy of Brown’s total of 300, which saw him finish third in the entire league behind Cal Clutterbuck and Tuomo Ruutu. Backes wasn’t lacking in the hitting department either, although his 213 were a 20 percent drop from the year before, when Backes placed fifth in the NHL in hits behind Clutterbuck, Stephane Robidas and, you guessed it, Brown and Callahan.

David Backes’ hits may have fallen in 2010-11, but here he is fighting the MVP of the league.
While Brown is entering his fourth season as captain of the supposed conference contending Kings, Backes and Callahan are trying to qualify for the playoffs in their first seasons as captains. Regardless of whether they all do so, they will close the regular season as a trio of 27 year-olds. But will they be the only American-born captains in the league aside from Gionta with the Habs?
Ryan Callahan is both a beast and the new captain of the New York Rangers.
That depends almost entirely upon who is named captains of the six teams that currently have vacancies. For three of these teams — Philadelphia, Florida and the New York Islanders — there is next to no chance that the new captain has or will ever don the stars and stripes at any level of international competition. The Flyers could slap the “C” on Chris Pronger as a short-term solution in the wake of trading former captain Mike Richards to L.A. The Panthers should, in my opinion, give the captaincy to center David Booth for time served and being the team’s best player, although the acquisition of Brian Campbell from Chicago could alter that outcome. And I would be surprised and confused if the Islanders didn’t name John Tavares team captain. He’s been their best player for a short time now, as he should be based on his #1 overall draft spot, and he’s saying the kinds of things in the media that befit the leader of an up-and-coming squad.
It is highly unlikely that Buffalo names an American captain, although I would point out that Roberto Luongo was laughably named the captain of the Canucks not too long ago (and has since relinquished the gig), and certainly Ryan Miller would be a better fit in Buffalo given his comparative lack of competition from his skaters. But I make this argument jokingly, as a goalie should almost never be the team captain for a multitude of reasons.
The other two vacancies see potential for a couple Team USAers that have been the best offensive players on their teams for some time now. In New Jersey, there’s no real argument against Zach Parise being the team captain. He’s epitomized Devils hockey in the last six years. Like the trio of Backes, Brown and Callahan, Parise is 27 years old. Unlike that trio of current American NHL captains, however, Parise adds a serious scoring prowess to his heart-and-soul character. In the two seasons before he got injured last year, Parise averaged 88 points and over 40 goals. In fact, Parise’s worst season since his rookie year saw him tally 31 goals, which would have tied Backes and outdone Brown and Callahan last season.
But, nothing is ever as cut and dry in the real world as it is on paper, is it? After the Devils went and locked down Ilya Kovalchuk, who plays the same position as Parise, for the next millenium, Parise came to his senses and positioned himself to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That doesn’t mean that he’s leaving the team, but it means that his eyes are open and he’ll probably see what he thinks of this season’s bunch before making up his mind about staying. Now, on the one hand, the Devils could try to guilt trip Parise into signing an extension by naming him team captain and playing to his blue-collar mentality and give him a sense of false responsibility.

But I have a feeling that the team realizes that the motivations behind this gesture would be see-through, and might even insult Parise’s intelligence. Parise, once believed to be an overly loyal company man, has shown that he either gets it or is listening to close confidants by refusing to marry this organization that may in fact not have a realistic shot at any more Stanley Cups in the next ten years. Despite Parise being the most qualified man for the job, I’d put the likelihood of him being named captain around 30 percent, if only because there’s nearly no competition for the job. To name Kovalchuk captain would guarantee Parise’s departure, and may even lead to a mutiny among players and fans who have been less than pleased with the recent direction of the front office. The most logical man to win the job is Patrik Elias, who has been a Devil since 1995 and has two years left on his contract.
The most likely team to elect the fifth American captain in the league is the Colorado Avalanche. They have the second-lowest payroll in the league as of today (per, and have only five skaters signed beyond the current season. Of the five, only Team USA silver medalist Paul Stastny could even be considered for the captaincy. That means that Stastny is only competing against players that, as of today, are entering the final year of their contracts. To be in the final year of a deal is not disqualifying when it comes to wearing the “C,” but it certainly is easier to give it to the guy that you know is contractually obligated to be around longer.
If Stastny is not named the captain of the team, I would have to assume that honor would go to either elder statesman Milan Hejduk or third-year center Matt Duchene. Of course, American defenseman Erik Johnson could be in the discussion under the “John Tavares” argument, being that Johnson was selected 1st overall in the 2006 entry draft, but then again the Blues wouldn’t have traded the supposedly uber-talented blue liner to Colorado last season if he was really captain material. Then again, this is the Avalanche organization we’re talking about. They may just decide to name Joe Sakic captain and prevent anyone from wearing the “C” on the ice this season. Assuming someone gets it though, my money would be on Stastny.
If named captain of the Avs, Stastny would represent a departure from what has recently become the stereotype of the American NHL team captain, or I suppose what I’m trying to argue the stereotype for such a spot should be. Stastny is much more of a creator than a finisher, as he has marked almost exactly double the number of assists as compared to goals in his five-year career. With 321 points in 348 career NHL games, Stastny has proven to be a reliable point-per-game center on a team that desperately needs consistency in its play. One question on the matter may be whether Stastny’s candidacy was harmed this spring when his father Peter said that management “destroyed the team” by shipping out Paul’s linemate Chris Stewart, along with rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, to St. Louis in exchange for Johnson (and Jay McClement). Paul was quick to distance himself from the comments and say that he disagrees with his father’s summation of the deal, but one has to wonder if there’s some fire hiding behind that smoke.
All in all, I really don’t care who these teams name as their captains, although I think I’ve made the case for why certain players should get a “C,” and why some players probably will. Only time will tell, and we are close to finding out. Preseason games start this coming Monday, September 19. Let’s drop the puck already.

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