Leadership in the NHL, and more specifically the captaincy, has functional and socio-psychological aspects to it. We (when I say "we", I mean fans) often talk about the importance of leadership, and how it can bring a team together or inspire a team to accomplish great things. The player with the "C" joins an exclusive club in any team's history, and former captains are occasionally brought back to either celebrate retired numbers or the anointing of a new captain.
Cassie McClellan at From the Rink was on the right track with her take on captaincy earlier in the current NHL season: it seems that teams elect their best scorers captain fairly frequently. I want to delve into that a little deeper, and take a glance at this year's captains and some interesting things about them.
McClellan's point got me thinking about the functional part of captaincy, that of a player allowed to talk to the referees on-ice. In this regard, a leading point-scorer might make sense; they will get quite a few minutes, and are likely to be kept on the team for longer, so they essentially would have more opportunities to carry out their duties for a team.
The socio-psychological aspect ("motivation", "leadership") could come with a leading point-scorer likely sticking around; there is a possibility they could know their teammates better, and be the "welcome wagon" for newcomers. Beyond that, a captain's approach varies greatly, whether they inspire by words or actions, whether the team responds to words or actions, whether the captain is a representative of the team to coaches, media, etc. Looking at this year's crop of captains, there's no less variation in leadership approaches; but there's a lack of variation in other things.
An extraordinary number of this year's captains are either a.) 1st round picks, b.) players acquired via "big" trades*, and/or c.) players acquired via "big" signings**. In these three scenarios, GMs and the players alike are under pressure to justify the means of their acquisition; they are also expected to stick around awhile and bring great things to the organization. I highly doubt, though, that this would automatically make a person qualified for the captaincy, but it sure does seem to happen often:
Team --- Captain --- Round Drafted --- "Big" Trade? --- "Big" Signing?
This is not to mention the number of players on this list that are being paid north of $5 million/year now, instead of simply being acquired on that expensive of a contract. Had I included those, Horcoff, McCabe, and Lidstrom would be in the mix as well. Had I also dropped the contract value to $4.5 million/year, we'd be including Alfredsson and Weber, leaving only Rivet and Weight behind. As is, 23 of the 30 captains fall into the 3 criteria I established above, and we can either choose to accept that GMs are really good at drafting, trading for, or paying for leadership, or we can suggest that perhaps some of these players are gaining the captaincy even if they aren't true leaders.
More on this later...
*I'm identifying a "big" trade as a trade where that player is used to either acquire a first-line player or 1st round pick or are expected to be a first-line player in return for perceived first-line value.
**I'm identifying a "big" signing as where a player receives $5 million/year or greater.