Is Shawn Horcoff A Good Captain?

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
13 (none) (none) Dion Phaneuf

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.

To recap:

  • 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.
  • Talbot17

    I agree hard work builds the argument of the captain leading by example, but it also comes a time when the captain my be questioned by the media overtime and i am sure players pick up on this and maybe even question their leadership as well. I have always been a believer in the captaincy going to someone who goes full out night in and night out and can consistently produce because if he is ever questioned by teammates they can easily see his hard work but also his results. Taylor Hall or Eberle to me eventually should wear the C but I dont think that should occur for another year at least.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Also, doesn’t Strudwick write for this post? Anyway we can get an insider’s perspective on what, if anything, makes Horcoff at least the most qualified man for the job?

  • Lowetide

    Horcoff has been a good Oiler and a good captain, especially the last few years.

    But that doesn’t make him a good hockey player, especially at his salary. But even if he were making only a million dollars per season, he shouldn’t be seeing a role any higher than 3rd line on this team, much less a good team.

    If the Oilers can somehow rid the team of his millstone contract, I wouldn’t mind seeing Belanger as captain next year.

    The guy has seen it all around the league and seems like a good mentor for the younger players.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Great article. I think most fans know Horcoff’s value lies in numbers that are hard to quantify. Like Taylor Hall, Ryan Whitney, Nugent Hopkins, and Ryan Smyth, the Oilers are a noticeably different team when he’s not in the line-up. I think the good captains do two things, accept responsibility, and lead by example. These are two things Horcoff consistently demonstrates. However, I think great captains do one more thing effectively, hold teammates accountable for mistakes away from the public. This is something few people outside the locker room know if Horcoff is doing, and I think it shows in the team’s compete level. Great captains are great because they’re team wants to play for them, possibly why Dion is getting so much flack lately.

    I think the C will pass to Hall for a few reasons. He competes literally every single shift. He wants to carry the team on his back. He is also well adept at talking to the media and taking responsibility. His work ethic off the ice and desire to get back on it is well documented. He’s an elite level talent and will develop into an incredible player if he can stay healthy. Finally, he’s a superstar in Edmonton and for the love this city gives him, It seems as though he loves the city. The only question mark is will the players want to play for him? I think when he’s ready to take over the C, the team will look drastically different and Hall will have emerged as a great leader.

  • Dan the Man

    Thank you for writing this, you make so many very good points. Horcoff has been a great soldier for this team and yet he gets capped on constantly because the Oilers chose to overpay him.

  • I don’t really believe that a hockey captain is just a figurehead that doesn’t have affect on his teammates. A bad captain is a figurehead that doesn’t have any affect on his teammates. It might not seem like it should be this way, but there are times where players will play better for a guy who holds them accountable. Maybe not all the time, no.. but there are times where a captain or alternate can get the most out of certain teammates whether it be from inspiring words or inspiring play. There are times where guys take nights off.. we know this. I think a good captain could help make teammates feel more accountable for those off nights. Should it work that way? I don’t think so. Guys should be able to dig deep within themselves… but I don’t think that’s always how it works in practice.

    Anyways, I’m of the belief that Horcoff is the best captain this team has to offer. His work ethic is second to .. well.. maybe Taylor Hall. I think that’s probably it though as far as leadership qualities being better in someone else (talent level aside.. but that isn’t what I consider a leadership quality so much). But he also is very vocal, intelligent, and can handle a world of pressure (which he’s been doing since about ’06).

    The biggest thing for me though is that players and/or coaches generally decide on captaincy. I trust FAR more in what any of them would have to say about a player’s ability to be a good captain than any of us fans. It’s fun to debate all this stuff, I suppose, but really it just seems pretty silly to me (not to take anything away from your post though JW, I don’t mean it in that way.. I think you are of a similar mind on that point).

  • Lexi

    Great article JW.

    I would rather have Horcoff as captain too long than make one of the kids a captain too soon. Bad teams have mediocre captains and for all his flaws, Horcoff has at least appered to have been a pro and on a team that has had the last 3 yrs we have that says something.

    In the next two or three years one of the kids will probably become the obvious pick for whoever the coach is and that will be the right time and I’m sure Horcoff will be happy to give it up then. (see Fogolin to Gretzky in 80s)

  • John Chambers

    I was of the opinion we needed a change of captain prior to reading the article. I am now convinced of the otherwise, especially on the point about Horcoff accepting responsibility for the team’s failures. Good read.

  • Lowetide

    He’s done every crap job asked of him since he got here, and those crap jobs have been some of the toughest available during his career.

    Good captain? Hell, his career since 2006 spring is worthy of martyrdom.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      The same jobs need to be done on a top 10 club in the league as well Alan. Is it less glorious doing it on a last place club compared to a competitive club?

      Or is Horcoff just flat out doing a crappy job, leading his teammates to last place while doing said jobs? Never seen that discriptive word linked to say, a Kris Draper. Maybe Horcoff’s just doing it all wrong. Can it be that there’s a link between the two, is he just a 3 dressed up as a 9?