It’s a question I get once at least once a week, and lately it feels more like a daily or even hourly occurrence: should Shawn Horcoff be the captain of the Edmonton Oilers?
Inevitably, when I’m asked the question, it’s followed shortly thereafter by a list of reasons why he shouldn’t be. I’m not going to rehash them. The odds are good that anyone reading this has already come across them.
What makes a good captain? Different people have different lists, but most fans prefer players that are either elite talents or display work ethic, typically measured by things liked blocked shots, a physical game, or a willingness to fight.
It’s interesting to review lists of the NHL’s best captains a year or two later, since such criteria are often poor indicators of which players really are good captains. Such a list was put to together by Andrew Kearney for Bleacher Report, and in the comments sections two other lists were put together by readers. Here are the three lists:
|Rank||List 1||List 2||List 3|
|1||Sidney Crosby||Niklas Lidstrom||Niklas Lidstrom|
|2||Niklas Lidstrom||Sidney Crosby||Sidney Crosby|
|3||Jonathan Toews||Jarome Iginla||Jarome Iginla|
|4||Mike Richards||Jonathan Toews||Jonathan Toews|
|5||Alexander Ovechkin||Mike Richards||Zdeno Chara|
|6||Jarome Iginla||Zdeno Chara||Mike Richards|
|7||Henrik Sedin||Ryan Getzlaf||Eric Staal|
|8||Ryan Getzlaf||Eric Staal||Ryan Getzlaf|
|9||Brendan Morrow||Daniel Alfredsson||Daniel Alfredsson|
|10||Adam Foote||Brendan Morrow||Brendan Morrow|
|11||Vincent Lecavalier||Rick Nash||Rick Nash|
|12||Shane Doan||Mikko Koivu||Mikko Koivu|
I’m going to include the comment on Phaneuf from that third list, just because it’s golden:
The Maple Leafs hasnt been a force but he’s well respected in the organization, voices his opinion no matter what, and gained the respectful presence locker room as soon as he was traded. Not too many young players can do that. He also really cares about the Maple Leafs and wants to win. Just hope Bran Burkle can do that as a GM.
Today, it’s hard to throw a rock in Toronto without hitting somebody who questions Phaneuf’s abilities as team captain. Dave Feschuk’s column less than a week ago added mainstream criticism to the fires – and quoted (unnamed) NHL players.
Anyway, there are other interesting inclusions on the list. Mike Richards gets a prominent spot on all three lists, despite questions about his ability to get along with Chris Pronger. After those lists were put together came the “Dry Island” nonsense and Richards’ trade to Los Angeles. Rick Nash shows up on two lists; it’s hard to imagine he’d land on any now.
Even in Edmonton, it’s easy think of cases where fans would like a mulligan – Sheldon Souray (also known as Studley Wonderbomb) was a frequently cited fan choice for captain. That ended shortly before he became a common fan choice for exile to the AHL for fear he would sour young players on being Oilers.
It’s probably fair to argue that fans, as a rule, aren’t particularly good at picking up leadership qualities from afar.
That’s one of the reasons I typically don’t spend much time worrying who the captain is. I’m not qualified to make a decision. The other reason is that, on the whole, I very much doubt it matters a lot. A guy with leadership qualities is going to lead, whether or not he has a letter. A guy without leadership qualities isn’t going to lead, again whether or not he has a letter.
Beyond that, those leadership qualities aren’t going to matter more than a good/bad goaltender, defense or forward group. The game is played on the ice – having a harmonious and well-led dressing room is a good thing but ultimately it isn’t going to make Cam Barker a competent NHL defenseman; just as a discordant and leaderless group isn’t going to suck away Jordan Eberle’s goal-scoring ability.
The third point takes us from the general and back to the specific: is Shawn Horcoff a good captain? Here’s what some teammates had to say about him when he was named:
Tom Gilbert: “It was no surprise in this locker room. He’s vocal, he leads on the ice… he’s going to be a good guy to fill that spot.”
Taylor Hall: “Definitely very deserving. Probably my pick for the captain… for me to be on his line right now and sit beside him in the room and him kind of taking me under his wing is very special.”
Sam Gagner: “Everybody’s going to be behind him and look to him for guidance. He’s the right guy and it’s a great fit for us… guys call him the GM because of how organized he is, and how he’s just got everything so taken care of.”
If there’s been a bad word spoken about Horcoff’s personality, work ethic or leadership from one of his teammates, I haven’t seen it.
Finally, there’s the point that being a good captain of the Edmonton Oilers the last few years has involved something quite difficult: showing up and talking to the media loss after loss.
It reminds me of a story I read once about Stephen Harper and Peter Van Loan. Harper, obviously, is the Prime Minister while Van Loan has been one of his more prominent cabinet ministers. Anyway, the story goes that back when Brian Mulroney’s government was rocked by scandals, Mulroney would always rise to take questions in the House of Commons. Day after day it would go: questioning about scandal, Mulroney answering, questioning about scandal, Mulroney answering. The Harper government believed that Mulroney constantly answering these sorts of questions helped link him in the public mind to the scandals he was answering on. So they made a choice – instead of having Harper answer a question on something they didn’t want him linked to, up would pop Peter Van Loan’s cheerful mug to answer.
Shawn Horcoff doesn’t have a Peter Van Loan. He is the Oilers’ Peter Van Loan. Night after night, on a team built to lose hockey games, Horcoff’s the guy that has to answer the questions of why they didn’t show up, why they weren’t competitive. He’s done it without tossing his teammates under the bus; he’s also done it without absolving himself of blame (predecessor Ethan Moreau, in a one-goal loss where the powerplay went 1-for-4 and the penalty-kill went 1-for-4, blamed the power play for the loss despite the fact that he’d been directly involved with the goal against on the penalty kill). He’s done it on nights where he’s the only veteran volunteering to go out to answer questions.
There are fans out there who would rather see Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle in that role. There aren’t a lot of guys anywhere near 20 that I’d like to see with that responsibility. Leaving aside the difficult task of answering questions on why the team has lost yet again – without blaming teammates, while accepting responsibility – I can’t imagine that it does great things to the psyche of the player involved.
From my admittedly limited perspective, there isn’t a player on the team who could have done the thankless job that Shawn Horcoff has done the last two years better than he has.
- 1. Fans are bad at identifying good leaders.
- 2. Good leadership is very much a secondary concern in the grand scheme of things.
- 3. Based on the knowledge we have, Shawn Horcoff is a good captain.
- 4. Being the captain of a terrible team is a hard job that probably doesn’t help young players develop into great players.