Friday, February 24, 2012

Captaining the Caps

Let me preface this by saying I have never played hockey. I've never played on a varsity team, but I have played on JV squads in other sports (wrestling and rugby). So while I can't say that I know exactly what the most desirable traits are in the captain of a hockey squad, I have at lease some exposure to team sports and captaincy.

It is my opinion that Ovechkin should relinquish the "C" to Brooks Laich this offseason. Doing so right now would merely add more turmoil and misplaced focus to an already fragile Caps squad, but I do think it would be for the best once the season is over.

I am not saying, by any means, that Ovechkin is not a leader on the Capitals, nor that he is an ineffective leader. I simply believe that he is not the best leader on the team. What I do believe is that Ovechkin is usually one of the best leaders on the ice in terms of passion for the game and skill. His numbers may be slumping as of late, and people have questioned his effort accordingly. But watch his reaction when anybody on the team scores. Watch his face when the team is down. Watch him absolutely blow someone up because they dared lay a heavy hit on him. This is a guy who cares about winning and about his team, regardless of how many coaches rotate in and how many talking heads say otherwise. You will never convince me otherwise.

What I am convinced of is that these alone are not the only qualifications for leading as team captain. Brooks Laich embodies those qualities a little better. There is a reason that his name comes up every single time someone questions who should be captain, just as talks of who should be captain come up every time he gives a presser. It is no secret that his voice is one of the loudest and most respected in the locker room, along with that of Mike Knuble. Unlike Laich, though, Knuble does not have a fresh six-year deal that clearly pays him as much for his leadership skills as his hockey skills.

On the ice, Laich is a leader as well. For all of Ovechkin's skills, you probably won't see him suiting up as a center one day, left wing the next, and then filling in on defense next week. Laich is an all-around player. As much as I love Ovi, he just doesn't fit that description. I think the Great 8 is the best player on the team, but that the best player on the team does not necessarily have to be the captain.

The L.A. Kings chose Dustin Brown, a 20-goal two-way forward as their captain. The Penguins chose Sidney Crosby, who (good lord I hate saying this) established himself as the best player in the league when he is healthy. The Kings have plenty of talent, plenty of players who have more offensive talent than Brown, especially now that they have Mike Richards and Jeff Carter on the team to join Anze Kopitar, but Brown is the guy who better exemplifies what they need in a captain. Part of me thinks that the Caps looked at the Penguins a little too much when they chose their best player as their captain. But who else would they have chosen? Nobody else remotely worthy of the role, aside from Evgeni Malkin, was really guaranteed to be there for a substantial period of time, and the Penguins were going through as much of a rebuild as the Caps.

When Chris Clark was injured for the better part of three seasons before ultimately being traded while still holding the captaincy, it made a lot of sense to make Ovi his replacement. He was on top of the world, a whirlwind force on the ice, and the face of the franchise. Laich wasn't guaranteed to be around, because the Caps were still forming their new identity. Whether Ovechkin was truly ready for the role is a whole different story, and one that none of us who are not close to him personally can ever truly attest to. What can be attested to now is that Laich is the guy that many fans and much of the media look to as the true leader and heart of the team off the ice, and as a more than capable player and leader on the ice. He is the guy who runs warm-ups, and has for five years.

Aside from Laich being the guy I think would be the best captain for the team right now, especially through turmoil and regime change, I think it could possibly be better for Ovechkin right now, too. Much has been made of Olie Kolzig's comments that Ovi needs to get back to his younger years and back off from his "rock star" image. I don't think those comments are meant to be nearly as negative as many have made them out to be. I think it is more a call for him to remove distractions and focus on his game, to not get quite so caught up in all the pressures of his life and being pulled in 100 different directions from the team, the league, the coaches, the media, the sponsors, the fans, and everyone else. Whether or not it is a phantom correlation (X and Y appear correlated, but only because Z is happening at the same time), Ovechkin's offensive production has plummeted since taking on the captain's role. Removing one more pressure from his life could arguably help him regain his focus, helping his production and by proxy, the team. Admittedly, that may be a bit of a stretch, but it is still a factor that should be considered.

If the Capitals could have co-captains, I would be 100% behind Ovechkin and Laich sharing the role. But since the NHL does not allow teams to have co-captains, I think that Laich should have a shot starting next season. Again, this is really nothing against Ovechkin, but is instead praise for Laich and recognition that the team is going through changes one way or another. A different captain may help facilitate that change.

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