The Rangers traded their captain away during the 2017/18 season. They haven’t made it to the playoffs since, only making to the qualifying preamble round of last season’s playoff before being eliminated. Despite that, the Rangers have put together a team with considerable talent at each position. Perhaps the Rangers will decide to name a captain to signify the end of a transitional period.
When doing these pieces, I always examine past captains’ contributions to give a clearer idea of what kind of history is associated with a particular team’s captaincy, within reason. If a past captain has had multiple stints as captain, I generally make mention of both stints, but only if both captaincies occurred during a player’s single stint with a team. If, on the other hand, the player left the team, or was stripped of the captaincy and then left, I will include only the latter stint, making the previous one a separate player for all intents and purposes. This is an important mention as the fifth-most recent player to wear the “C” is Mark Messier. Messier is known for his first captaincy with the Rangers, from 1991 to 1997, which included many great offensive seasons, deep playoff runs, partnership with legendary Rangers teammates, a Stanley Cup, and “the Guarantee” that has embedded itself into hockey lore. But we’re not going to elaborate on that, because he played for the Vancouver Canucks from 1997 to 2000 before his second stint as a Rangers captain.
After his failed tenure in Vancouver, Messier rejoined the Rangers at the age of 39. Despite having clearly lost a few steps production-wise, he rejoined the Rangers as still a 60-point threat, scoring 67 in 2001. He followed that up with seasons scoring at 42-, 46-, and 42-point paces, totaling 173 points (67G, 106A) in 277 games, and failed in all four of the seasons during his second run with the Rangers, before retiring following the lockout at age 44. He did manage one more All-Star appearance in 2004 and at the end of the 2003/04 season was the oldest active player with WHA experience. Messier was replaced after the lockout by Jaromir Jagr. Having been acquired from the rebuilding Capitals during the 2003/04 season, Jagr was looking to rebound after failing to perform in Washington to the standards he had established in Pittsburgh. Jagr more than delivered, having seasons of 54 goals and 123 points, 30 goals and 96 points, and 25 goals and 71 points as captain, totaling 290 points (109G, 181A) in 246 games and leading the Rangers to three straight playoff appearances and two straight Eastern Conference Semifinal appearances. Jagr would return to his native Czech Republic in 2008 before embarking on his 2011-2017 return tour. Forward Chris Drury, who joined the Rangers in 2007 following his co-captaining of the Sabres to the President’s Trophy, and that co-captaining stint is likely what made Drury the next captain pick. He unfortunately was in decline, having failed to match his post-lockout 60-point campaigns in his initial years in New York, falling below 40 points in 2009/10, and missing the bulk of 2010/11 with injuries. He only managed 93 points (37G, 56A) in 182 games as Rangers captain and made the playoffs twice before accepting a buyout and retiring. Drury was succeeded by 2004 fourth-rounder Ryan Callahan, who accepted the “C” for the 2011/12 season and scored 110 points (56G, 54A) in 166 games. Callahan captained the Rangers to the 2012 Eastern Conference Final and an additional playoff series win in 2013, but was traded to Tampa Bay for Martin St. Louis in 2014 before the Rangers saw another Cup Final. Defenceman Ryan McDonagh, coming off his first 40-point season. McDonagh scored 135 points (25G, 110A) in 270 games, decent numbers for a not-high-octane defenceman, played in two All-Star Games, and led the Rangers to three playoff appearances. He was traded to Tampa Bay before the Rangers’ non-playoff finish in 2018. The captaincy has been vacant since.
Now let’s examine my picks for captain.
With all the additions the Rangers made, the “they strengthened and deepened and may want to name a captain to usher in their new era of competitiveness” angle happened to the angle I went with last season, which of course ended with the Rangers being eliminated from a qualifying round pulled out of thin air by the NHL in response to COVID, in a playoff the Rangers wouldn’t have qualified for in a normal season. Which is to say, they were clearly not ready last season to usher in their new era of competitiveness. Maybe they’re not ready this season either, and shouldn’t name a captain?
Every time I do these pieces, there’s always one team with a vacant captaincy and no legitimately solid candidates on the blueline, which makes it harder for me to stay within my totally arbitrary rules. Not this season. This season that’s every team I’m writing about. For the Rangers, I decided the obligatory Rangers defenceman would be Trouba. Among the other higher-profile defencemen on the team, I think it’s pretty clear why I didn’t pick any other one, and the less said about that, the better. And no it’s not because he’s former Jet. Trouba had pretty bad season overall last season. His impact in all areas was less than satisfactory after the strong 2018 and 2019 seasons he had, but he is still one of the better Rangers defencemen in terms of ability, and did score at a 32-point pace, which does put his offensive production in a slightly more flattering light. With his experience in the playoffs in a central role as a member of the Jets, Trouba, who is roughly in the middle of the Rangers’ age-range, in the sweet spot between having established experience and more good seasons to come in his future, makes the most sense as Rangers captain if we’re talking defencemen.
I think it’s safe to say the 2016 Calder winner Panarin is one of the best wingers in the game today. His 32 goals and 95 points last season are very strong totals in an ordinary season. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the end of the regular season being cancelled and Panarin was limited to only 69 games, and those totals are nice. In a full 82-game schedule, that would have been 38 goals and 113 points. When considering who should be the captain of a team, the best offensive player on the team is always worthy of consideration, and that is without a doubt Panarin.
Zibanejad was drafted sixth overall in 2011, and with that lofty draft position came lofty expectations. Those expectations began to be realized in 2018/19 when he finished with 30 goals and 74 points, the first time he scored at a 60-point pace or more, but he kicked things into high gear with 41 goals and 75 points last season. On top of the home stretch of the regular season being cancelled due to the coronavirus, Zibanejad missed time with injury, limiting him to 57 games. In a full season, unhampered by injury, that translates into 59 goals and 108 points. Now of course we need to temper expectations. When a player scores like Zibanejad did, the best explanation is usually that their season was shorter, so while their actual production would translate into these mind-boggling numbers, they would most likely have regressed to something more typical of their career up to that point. Nobody scores 59 goals in today’s NHL as much as some people (read: me) would like. His production in a normal season would more closely resemble the 2018/19 season than the 2019/20, but that’s still really good. As it stands now, as a 30-goal 70-point player in his prime, Zibanejad is sitting pretty as the Rangers’ number one centre, and the number one centre, especially one there by merit as opposed to circumstance, earns consideration.
Being real, I’d see the Rangers’ captaincy as a toss-up between their two signature offensive forces, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Between the two, Panarin seems like more of a safe bet to repeat his level of play from last season. He was a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and despite having been in the NHL for fewer seasons, has had much more time than Zibanejad as an NHL star. It just feels right that a glitzy market like New York would have the biggest star on the roster as team captain.