Steven Stamkos is the NHL’s most dangerous goal scorer. The center is Tampa Bay’s franchise player. Stamkos, bypassed by Team Canada for the 2010 Olympics, will be the team’s go-to shooter in Sochi next February. Stamkos is a friendly, engaging, and approachable young man. The 23-year-old represents his employer and his sport as well as any player in the league.
Stamkos, however, will have to wait to assume Tampa’s captaincy.
On Tuesday, the Lightning introduced Martin St. Louis as their new captain. The former University of Vermont star replaces Bolt buyout Vincent Lecavalier, who will be paid more than $32 million not to return to Tampa. The Lightning made the announcement at a fan event in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“You should have heard the roar Marty got from the fans,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “It was amazing. We knew, obviously, he was going to be named captain before that. But that was just the exclamation point on the whole process.”
In other sports, team captaincy is an afterthought. For as many captains as an NFL team has, there are just as few on NBA and baseball rosters.
In hockey, being captain is different. It means something. The captain is the lead dog on the ice, on the bench, and in the dressing room. He is the conduit between players and coach. He talks to the referees. After he wins the Stanley Cup, he gets the “Price is Right” come-on-down wave from Gary Bettman when the commissioner requires a steward for the trophy. The “C” on his jersey is a seal of approval from the organization. Gone are the days of player votes.
“It’s more important in this sport than any other sport,” said Tampa alternate captain and ex-Bruin Nate Thompson, who was captain in Providence. “They’re leaned on the most. They take on the most responsibility.
“Most of all, to be a captain is a pretty special experience, because you’re the first guy who gets to hold the Stanley Cup. I think that’s a huge thing and a pretty special thing.”
Young captains are not an anomaly. Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Gabriel Landeskog were in their NHL diapers when they earned their captaincies.
But the responsibility can be overwhelming for others. Joe Thornton didn’t get it in Boston. Rick Nash’s Columbus captaincy ended when the Blue Jackets honored his request to leave town.
Stamkos wasn’t the only young player to be recently bypassed. Taylor Hall is Edmonton’s franchise player. Like Stamkos, Hall competes furiously. Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, is the future captain.
But the Oilers didn’t think the 21-year-old was the best current candidate. Instead, they tapped first-year Oiler and ex-Bruin Andrew Ference to replace Shawn Horcoff. The 34-year-old Ference, an Edmonton native, has three visits to the Cup Final and one ring. Experience always counts.
It was a similar situation in Tampa. Stamkos will be the next bearer of the “C.”
“I don’t think we’re opening eyes here saying that whenever that day comes that Marty hangs ’em up — which, hopefully, will be years and years from now — Stammer’s going to be the guy that’s extremely capable of taking over,” Cooper said.
Until then, the “C” will belong to St. Louis. In theory, the right wing was Lecavalier’s alternate. In practice, the roles had been reversed.
“It’s been his team for a while,” said Cooper, who replaced Guy Boucher last season. “Even in my limited time here last year, you could see it was his team.”
St. Louis, like former UVM teammate Tim Thomas, has a history of proving people wrong. Thirty teams passed on drafting the 5-foot-8-inch, 180-pound St. Louis. Calgary waived him. St. Louis responded by winning the Cup with Tampa in 2004. St. Louis was a point-per-game player in five of the last seven seasons.
Few are as competitive on the ice. Or even off it.
The last two summers, Torey Krug worked out with St. Louis in Darien, Conn., at Prentiss Hockey Performance. In the gym, St. Louis is the alpha male. St. Louis’s quads, which Krug classifies as tree trunks, are better placed in the Muir Woods than in an NHL rink. Summers shaping his body allow St. Louis to go nose-to-kneecap with Zdeno Chara in the NHL’s equivalents of dark alleys. St. Louis’s work ethic is more contagious than day-care sniffles.
“He’s intense. Very intense,” Krug said. “He’s one of a kind. When he’s in the gym or on the ice, he doesn’t like to lose. He absolutely hates losing more than he loves winning. That says a lot about him. The way he trains is like nobody I’ve ever seen. He’s a very focused individual. Very driven.”
Some captains lead by example. Others bark in the room. St. Louis is a mix of both. The smallest guy on the ice regularly mixes it up in the dirty areas. Between periods, St. Louis commands attention.
“Just bring what you bring,” said St. Louis, when asked how he intends to address his charges. “And have fun. This is a game we’re playing. Have fun doing it. Bring what brought you here.
“If you look at yourself in the mirror after every game and say, ‘I did everything I could,’ if everybody can do that at the end of the game, I like our chances.”
Captains like St. Louis convince their teammates to knock down walls. Especially when he’s the first one through.
Kessel’s deal must for Leafs
Informal feedback around the NHL regarding Phil Kessel’s extension was uniform: The Maple Leafs gritted their teeth, held their noses, and signed the ex-Bruin to an eight-year, $64 million deal, which will become effective in 2014-15. They had no other choice.
Kessel’s company in the $8 million-per-year crowd: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Corey Perry, Claude Giroux (starting in 2014-15), Eric Staal, and Ryan Getzlaf. Henrik Lundqvist, who will reach unrestricted free agency next season, will join that group with his next deal.
Does Kessel pass the smell test when mentioned in that group? Not entirely. Of the eight players in the $8 million club, five are captains (Ovechkin, Crosby, Giroux, Staal, and Getzlaf). Crosby, Malkin, Perry, Staal, and Getzlaf own Stanley Cup rings. The 26-year-old Kessel is not a rah-rah leader. His presence in the room is hardly considered dynamic.
In his final season as a Bruin, Kessel scored 36 quiet goals. Twenty-nine were against non-playoff teams. Kessel was a good, but not elite, offensive threat.
Now, Kessel is a different player and person than the one who forced his way out of Boston. Kessel is entering the sweet spot of his career.
Kessel was a point-per-game player the last two seasons.
During that time, only Stamkos (89-65—154), Malkin (59-83—142), and Giroux (41-99—140) scored more points than Kessel (57-77—134). By that metric alone, the market would have dictated a megabucks raise for Kessel.
Kessel really made his money, though, in the playoffs. Kessel and the Leafs lost to the Bruins in the opening round last season, but Kessel had four goals and two assists in the seven-game series. Even with the Bruins trying to match Zdeno Chara against Kessel, the right wing landed 29 shots on goal. Kessel missed on 10 other attempts.
Two things stood out about Kessel in the postseason: He was a difference-making offensive force. And he competed. The second might be more important than the first.
The new collective bargaining agreement set term limits on contracts. At a maximum, teams can extend their own players for eight years. If a player reaches the open market, he can sign with another club for seven years.
This structure has framed the deals of just about every high-end player. Malkin, Perry, Giroux, and Getzlaf all signed eight-year extensions after the lockout lifted. So did the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask. Before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane become UFAs after the 2014-15 season, Chicago will lock them up for eight more years.
Kessel was guaranteed an eight-year re-up with Toronto. Had Kessel reached UFA status, he would have commanded a seven-year deal. If multiple teams bid for Kessel, his annual average value would have tickled $8.5 million.
Had the Leafs traded Kessel, they would have gotten back five pennies, or even less, for a nickel. They could have saved Kessel’s money and applied it elsewhere if they let him walk. But there would have been nobody on the open market next July who could offer offensive firepower in Kessel’s league.
Toronto had no other move.
Let the players make the call
George Parros’s opening-night concussion, sustained in a scrap with ex-Bruin Colton Orr, is stirring the pot about the future of fighting. Respected general managers Ray Shero, Steve Yzerman, and Jim Rutherford expressed their reservations about fighting to TSN after Parros’s injury. But the players are the men bashing their knuckles, flattening their noses, and experiencing the mental strain of fighting — and failing — in front of thousands of fans. They should dictate its future. If they say no mas, who are we, as spectators, to say otherwise? But the next player I meet to declare fighting off limits will be my first. There are exceptions to fighting’s honor, John Scott chasing Phil Kessel being one of them. But for the most part, in what sounds like an oxymoron, fighters practice decorum. You ask others to fight. You don’t pick on non-fighters. You stick up for a teammate. You don’t punch once the fight is over. You don’t gloat upon victory. Hockey is a violent sport. Players get hurt, far more often in regular game play than fights. If players want to keep fighting, that should be good enough for its consumers.
As popular as the NFL is now, the league and its teams are concerned about the in-game experience. The ubiquity of high-definition TV, combined with other drawbacks (traffic, weather, sightlines, the new clear-bag policy), has football fans thinking about staying home. It’s less of a worry in the NHL. The sport comes alive in person. But NHL arena operators acknowledge that one area where fans at the rink demand perfect service is with their smartphones. Fans want to take pictures and post them immediately to their social media accounts. To that end, the Bruins are planning improvements in TD Garden’s wireless access that should roll out in stages this season. “[The game] is what they’re coming for,” said Garden president Amy Latimer. “It’s our job to make sure that everything around it is top-notch — making sure they get the food they want, the items they want to purchase, making sure they can use their phones.”
The Avalanche are pleased with the development of Weymouth native Paul Carey. Carey made it deep into the preseason before Colorado assigned the second-year pro to Lake Erie. Carey, a four-year player at Boston College, had 19 goals and 22 assists in 72 games as a rookie last season in the AHL. Carey’s high-water mark at BC was during his senior season in 2011-12, when he had 18 goals and 12 assists. Carey, Colorado’s fifth-round pick in 2007, could become a better pro than collegian.
On Wednesday, the day before their regular-season opener, the Bruins assigned Kevan Miller to Providence. Tough business for the former University of Vermont defenseman, who opened his bosses’ eyes by being the preseason’s final cut. The Bruins were especially pleased with Miller’s skating, which has improved since he turned pro in 2010-11. Miller projects to be a fifth or sixth NHL defenseman, but there is currently no room for Miller on the third pairing. The 25-year-old Miller could be a future replacement for Adam McQuaid, who will reach unrestricted status after the 2014-15 season. Both are surly right-shot stay-at-homers.
The Maple Leafs had to extend Kessel. They are under no such pressure to re-up Dion Phaneuf, whose contract expires after this season. Phaneuf is Toronto’s captain and its No. 1 defenseman. He regularly averages 25 minutes per game. The Leafs will have cap space, with Dave Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement, Mason Raymond, Troy Bodie, Mark Fraser, and Paul Ranger all scheduled to reach UFA status at year’s end. But Phaneuf will find it hard to replicate his current six-year, $39 million deal, which he signed with Calgary. The tread is wearing on the 28-year-old’s tires. Phaneuf plays a hard, heavy game — at times, not with smarts (see the missed hit on Nathan Horton in last season’s playoffs). If Phaneuf seeks the now-standard eight-year extension, he will be 37 by the conclusion of his deal. That’s not a kind age for physical defensemen. If Phaneuf wants to stay, he’ll most likely have to accept a shorter-term contract.
So far, players in Colorado are glowing about the coaching style of Patrick Roy, specifically regarding his communication — although Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau (with whom Roy had a postgame shouting match) might differ. Roy has been blunt regarding expectations and how he will deploy his roster. It helps that Roy is coming from junior hockey. Younger players expect direction and feedback, whereas coaches from Roy’s playing days were slow with compliments . . . Nice debut for ex-Bruin Chuck Kobasew, who won a job in Pittsburgh following a camp invite. Kobasew, wearing Jarome Iginla’s No. 12, scored a goal and dished out four hits in Pittsburgh’s season-opening 3-0 blanking of New Jersey. The former Boston College forward is a good fit for Pittsburgh’s high-tempo, straight-line system . . . Thankfully, rumblings of American involvement in Syria have quieted, no doubt thanks to the hockey gods as well as deities of other denominations. However, the CBA includes language on what would happen if a state of war prompted the NHL to cease or reduce operations. According to Rule 17 of the standard contract, a player is due only salary up to the date of suspension of operations. We hope that is never exercised . . . Good to see that Lars Eller, knocked into oblivion by Ottawa’s Eric Gryba in the playoffs, is back and better. The Montreal forward played well in camp and even better in the season opener (goal, two assists). Eller could displace David Desharnais as a top-two center if he continues to perform . . . Word around Washington is that Congress recently studied game tape from the Bruins’ defensive throttling of Pittsburgh in last season’s Eastern Conference finals. A proper shutdown, it seems, requires optimal preparation.