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The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and then again in 1972. And they did it without a captain. Indeed, Boston went without a player wearing the “C” for six seasons from 1967-68 through 1972-73.
Instead, the B’s went with alternates John Bucyk (who was captain in 1966-67 and was named again to the post in 1973-74), Phil Esposito and, first, Ted Green, and then, Ed Westfall. That is correct: Bobby Orr was not a letterman for the first seven seasons of his career.
So while Stanley Cup championship teams in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and New Jersey benefitted from the considerable leadership demonstrated by captains Mark Messier, Bobby Clarke, Ted Lindsay and Scott Stevens, respectively, there can be an, uh, alternate route to ultimate success.
This leads us to the Rangers, who are about to embark on their third full season without a captain. Unless, of course, the hierarchy consisting of president John Davidson, general manager Jeff Gorton, assistant GM Chris Drury and, critically, head coach David Quinn, believe that this is the time to sew the “C” on Mika Zibanejad’s sweater just above his heart.
Chris Kreider, on the verge of entering the first year of his seven-year contract extension, would be a worthy candidate, but it is likely going to be Zibanejad or no one. And no one in his right mind would dispute that No. 93 would be the man for the job.
The only question is whether the staff — and it is Quinn who knows the player best — believes that the captaincy would add a burden to the Swede and somehow change his game. Injuries might have been a factor, but the captaincy sure seemed to change Ryan McDonagh’s game, and not for the better.
The last thing the Rangers want or need is to have Zibanejad, whose trajectory to the upper echelon of NHL centers has been both steady and dramatic through his four years on Broadway, try to do too much in order to justify his captaincy.
Zibanejad is a quiet leader in the room and an inspirational one on the ice. He cuts his own style and has remained true to himself throughout his evolution since coming to the Rangers in the July 2016 exchange for Derick Brassard that ranks as one of the great trades in franchise history.
You know when Zibanejad emerged? It was immediately after the Deadline Purge of ’18 that left the club a shell of itself. Instead of being discouraged, instead of acting betrayed, Zibanejad took a lead role, recording 16 points (10-6) in the remaining 18 contests. He would not settle.
And since the Blueshirts deconstructed the team that Zibanejad had joined the previous summer, the 27-year-old has posted 165 points (81-84) in 157 games, or 1.05 points-per-game, including last year’s breakout 41-34=75 in 57 matches. He will not settle.
If the Rangers feel that going with lettermen by committee — that would surely feature Zibanejad, Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba as alternates — is best, then so be it. But Quinn and/or Davidson would surely owe Zibanejad an explanation. The centerman did not reveal his feelings last year, but I had the distinct impression that he was disappointed at not being awarded the “C.” It strikes me that the more responsibility Zibanejad assumes, the more he blossoms.
Zibanejad has two seasons remaining at $5.35 million per on what has become a grand slam home run of a five-year contract for the organization. Negotiation on an extension will commence this offseason. It might not be an easy one given the reality of the NHL’s flat cap world. The possibility of Zibanejad leaving via trade next summer or via free agency in two years might come into play as management ponders this decision.
Zibanejad has earned the captaincy. I don’t think there’s much of a credible argument against that. The question is whether the Rangers believe the captaincy would represent a burden rather than a reward. The best way to divine that answer is to talk with him and find out what the man himself has to say.
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