The Devils are the most recent team to have not had a captain. They entered the season with a long-established player wearing the “C,” but wound up trading that player during the season. In asking the question of who will be the captain next, we have to ask who is fit to lead a team that entered last season with huge expectations, only for the season to turn into an utter disaster well before a society-halting global pandemic was even a blip on anyone’s radar. Before we speculate on the future, it’s worth it look at the past, and see what kind of legacy the next Devils captain will have to live up to. I wouldn’t really argue it’s a lot.
Longtime Devils forward Patrik Elias was named captain for the 2006/07 season, but while he had a decent season, scoring 69 points (21G, 48A) in 75 games, it wasn’t quite to the standard he had established, and the Devils weren’t able to get farther in the playoffs than they had the previous season, resulting in him being stripped of the captaincy the following year. He continued to play for the Devils for almost a decade afterward, but refused the captaincy the next time it would be offered. He was succeeded by two-time Cup winner, including with the Devils, Jamie Langenbrunner, a two-way style forward as opposed to Elias’ offensive bent, who would nonetheless have some of the best individual seasons of his NHL career as captain. Langenbrunner topped the 60-point mark twice while wearing the “C,” and totaled 185 points (65G, 120A) in 257 games. But with his overall effectiveness diminishing, the Devils set to miss the playoffs, and not a single playoff series win, which at least Elias had been able to deliver, Langenbrunner was traded to Dallas, the team that had traded him to New Jersey in 2002 in fact, and he would close out his career after two seasons in St. Louis. The Devils’ home-grown 2003 first-round pick, forward Zach Parise, was Langenbrunner’s successor, scoring 69 points (31G, 38A) in 82 games, not the greatest total of his career after the two seasons prior to his injury-shortened 2010/11 season, but strong nonetheless. He also not only led the Devils back to the playoffs, not only their first playoff series win since 2007, but their first Stanley Cup Final since 2003, unfortunately losing to the Los Angeles Kings. Parise wound up joining outgoing Predators defenceman Ryan Suter in signing that infamous pair of 13-year $98MM contracts with the Minnesota Wild. Results have been mixed. Hard-nosed blueliner Bryce Salvador was the next player to don the “C.” Between Parise’s departure, the retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk the following offseason, and a general regression and decline on the rest of the team, Salvador’s three-season captaincy yielded no playoff appearances. While he had played 82 games in 2011/12 after missing all of 2010/11, he subverted expectations that he’d be healthy going forward hard, playing only 94 of a possible 212 games during his captaincy, scoring eight points (1G, 7A) in that time. He was followed by Andy Greene, two seasons removed from a career-second-high 32 points as arguably the offensive leader on the Devils blueline at the time. Greene scored 75 points (18G, 57A) in 364 games. Aside from a lone playoff appearance with eventual Hart-winner Taylor Hall in 2018 and a 25-point season in 2019. With the Devils eventually not even able to make it to the pre-playoff qualifyer much less the actual playoffs, Greene was traded to the Islanders, with whom he was able to get a new contract off a PTO.
Now let’s examine my picks for captain.
Of the the three teams with vacant captaincies, I think New Jersey is the most likely to not pick a captain this season and the one with the most to gain by not doing so. The Devils have only been captain-less since late last regular season. And they were all-around bad last season, such that they entered the season with a load of talent on paper, and wound up not even getting to play for a spot in the playoffs. The captaincy is an honour, and aside from the arguments I lay out in favour of three players below, does anyone deserve to be honoured after what they “accomplished” last season? Arguably, no.
If I had to argue the best pick for the next Devils captain, I’d have to say it’s Zajac. The Winnipeg-born centre is the longest-tenured member of the team, having been acquired in 2004 and having played for the team since 2006, while the next most-recent addition to the team, Damon Severson, was added in 2012, and joined the roster in 2014. While Zajac’s best offensive seasons, back-to-back 62- and 67-point seasons in 2009 and 2010, are long behind him, Zajac has several more 40-point-plus campaigns under his belt and has a long history on the team as a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of player. The Devils entered last season with 2018 Hart-winner Taylor Hall expected to have another great season, first overall pick Jack Hughes expected to compete for the Calder, and promising KHL star Nikita Gusev and the attention-grabbing PK Subban acquired to round out the forwards and defence, respectively, only for everything to utterly collapse. Perhaps, if the Devils do pick a captain, then it’s the elder statesman of the team, somone who’s seen ups and downs, both as a player and a member of the team, to guide them as captain.
Palmieri has been a Devils since the 2015/16 season, and has spent five seasons as one of their primary offensive threats, if not the main one. He has topped 70 games in three of the seasons he’s played with them, and has topped 50 points in each. While only 2015/16 saw him score 30 goals, he did score at a 32-, 30-, and 32-goal paces during the past three seasons, respectively, the former two of which were shortened by injury, and the latter of which wound up being cut short by COVID-19. Now, he hasn’t ever reached 60 points, and wasn’t on pace to do so either during any of his seasons in New Jersey, not to mention his irrelevancy as a scorer with Anaheim. If that kind of player is the one you point to as the one who makes the biggest impact offensively, then that’s a bad thing, but Kyle Palmieri, for better or worse, is that player for New Jersey, and that player always gets an at least cursory nod to fill an empty captain position in my book.
This is probably the most controversial suggestion I’m going to make here. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Subban is definitely one of the most individual players in the league, and he outright sucked last season. But like I said, I always suggest at least one forward and at least one defenceman. And in my opinion, Subban is the best fit if we’re looking at blueliners. Subban was the Norris winner in 2013, topped the 10-goal and 50-point marks each in all but one of the seasons between 2013/14 and 2017/18, led the Predators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, and was the second runner-up for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded for leadership as well as humanitarian contributions. It’s in that last aspect that I think Subban is underrated as a captain candidate. The role of captain is a leadership position, intangible, exactly the kind of thing that falls under the blanket of character qualities. Prior to his trade to Nashville, he pledged to raise $10MM to Montreal Children’s Hospital, and donated $50000 to the daughter of George Floyd. If we’re talking about character, that says more positively about his character than being a spotlight-stealer or an offence-first defenceman does negatively. To address the elephant in the room, his recent decline in performance, I’d say that his 2018/19 season, while short of the standard he had established in seasons prior, wasn’t completely bad. There were bad elements, but he had also missed significant time with injuries and the team as a whole didn’t help matters. With that in mind, I’d consider 2019/20 a down year. While Subban is 31, I think based on his overall history, and the ability we all know he has, he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he can turn things around for this season. Part of that is that if the Devils want a defenceman as captain, Subban, who I figured would have been a good captain option for any of his previous teams, is the choice.
I’ve laid out my case for three members of the Devils to be named captain, but my pick would be Travis Zajac. He has been with the Devils his whole career, is the oldest member of the team and has had by far the longest stint both on the roster and in the organization as a whole. He has had lows and highs as a player, from missing most of 2011/12 to injury to finishing 2009/10 with 67 points, and as a member of the team as a whole, from the abundance of seasons without a playoff appearance to the 2012 Cup Final appearance. If the Devils could give the skating corpses of Bryce Salvador and Andy Greene the captaincy for three and five years, respectively, then they can give it to Zajac too.