Can the NHL's youngest captains save their sinking teams?

Chris Clark was 30 years old when he was named captain of the Washington Capitals in 2006, and he wasn't the obvious choice.

Alexander Ovechkin was coming off a torrid rookie campaign that clearly placed the franchise in his hands. Rival Sidney Crosby had been asked, and had declined, the captaincy in Pittsburgh; he felt he wasn't ready yet. Noting that, some clamored for Ovechkin to get the 'C' in Washington, both because he was the face of the team and because they assumed he'd ascend to it anyway.

But Clark was given the nod, with GM George McPhee going as far as to compare him to Dale Hunter in the pantheon of Capitals captains during the announcement.

Now 32, Clark's practically a senior citizen when it comes to NHL captains. Of the teams with permanent captains, 10 of them have a player 30-or-under wearing the 'C.'

Perhaps inspired by Crosby's success as Pittsburgh Penguins captain, three teams this offseason turned to players in their early 20s to lead: Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks (20); Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings (23); and Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers (23). Rick Nash, 24, was named captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets late last season.

It's a trend that Clark said was a little surprising.

"I'm sure they're leaders, but I don't know them personally. But I don't know how older guys on the team feel about it," he said. "A lot of what comes from a captain is experience. They're great players, and they could be great leaders. But they can be leaders without being captains yet."

It's not hard to see how NHL captaincy has been forever altered -- ask Roberto Luongo about that. Just look at how they've changed over the last 30 years:




Chicago Blackhawks

Keith Magnuson, 30

Jonathan Toews, 20

Los Angeles Kings

Mike Murphy, 27

Dustin Brown, 23

Philadelphia Flyers

Bobby Clark, 29

Mike Richards, 23

Pittsburgh Penguins

Orest Kindrachuk, 28

Sidney Crosby, 21

Still, a lot has been made about the naming of Toews as Blackhawks captain this offseason, with ESPN asking if he's "too young to lead" and then getting Steve Yzerman on the record as an endorsement of Toews's readiness.

The Blackhawks center told me he wasn't phased by the scrutiny.

"I didn't really focus or worry about that too much. Stuff like that is going to happen where you get a lot of attention," he said last weekend. "Since they named me captain, I'm excited. I'm pumped for the challenge. And that's all I'm really worried about."

The comments by Chicago Blackhawks management after the firing of Denis Savard have, by now, been excavated for hidden meaning by everyone. Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune, for example, believes the phrase "organizational decision" means Scotty Bowman is running the show.

But this quote from GM Dale Tallon struck me, regarding the switch to Coach Joel Quenneville:

"We felt we needed a more experienced person in that position and that's why we made that decision."

One could assume Tallon was strictly speaking about Savard, who was four games into his third season behind an NHL bench when he was canned. But my thoughts immediately went to what a veteran coach means for an exceptionally young team that has a 20-year-old captain.

The proximity between center Jonathan Toews's player-only meeting, held without Savard's knowledge, and the coaching change could be coincidental. Or could it have been a harbinger that something in the team's power structure needed to change?

Both the Blackhawks and the Flyers have struggled out of the gate. In Richards's case, Philadelphia beat writer Tim Panaccio has questioned how he'll respond to his "first crisis" as team captain and that "how well Richards handles it could say volumes in the future."

After last night's loss to the Colorado Avalanche, Richards told reporters: "Well, you can't point anything out if you're not doing it yourself, so I don't think there's too many guys in the dressing room, including myself, who have had such great games that you can point fingers."

There are captains who do their best leading on the ice. Richards has three goals in four games. Brown has two assists in three games for the Kings. But Nash has one goal (and one point) in three games, while Toews has one assist in four games.

Clark said the extra pressure of wearing the 'C' can be a detriment to a young player. "If you are young, it's more weight on your shoulders. Younger guys should maybe concentrate on being better players, maybe having more fun," he said.

As Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier have shown, leadership and exemplary play can co-exist in the same youthful player.

It's too early for judgment; and in the end, being a successful captain has less to do with team record and personal stats than it does with the perception of their teammates.

"The problem you can have as a captain in our league is when the players don't feel like you're sincere or that you have the team's best interest at heart," Blue Jackets Coach Ken Hitchcock told the Canadian Press. "I think that's why the players like Rick so much is that they see a level of sincerity that's very, very high and I think they really like what he brings to the table."

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