The Florida Panthers introduced Derek MacKenzie as the eighth captain in franchise history today. The 35 year-old veteran of 453 NHL games is set to lead a young, dynamic team with aspirations of a deep playoff run. However, I am uncertain he is the right choice.
Before I go making my case, I do want to make one thing clear: I like Derek MacKenzie. I enjoyed watching him as part of the 2004-05 Chicago Wolves. That team helped keep hockey alive for me during the lost NHL season. I enjoy the energy DMac brings to a game. It’s fun to watch him motor around the ice and hit people. He also seems like a real good guy from afar. I have no problem with him individually
Yet, none of that makes him qualified to be captain of the Florida Panthers in my eyes.
My philosophy is simple: a team’s captain should reflect the team’s faith in their core group. A team lives and dies with it’s core group. I can boil down my philosophy to three criteria:
- The captain needs to be part of your core group of players
- The captain needs to be one of your best players
- The captain needs to be in place for the long-term
Derek MacKenzie does not or would not fulfill any of these three criteria. This is evident even if you love him.
He is not part of the core group. Players like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, or Jonathan Huberdeau are in the core group. They are players on the younger side in general, and they are the best this team has to offer. You could also make a case for veterans like Keith Yandle or Jussi Jokinen being part of the core group. Regardless, your core group is together for a reason. They are are your team’s best players. If you have built the best core group possible, then they must lead. It is not an option, they must or it does not work.
This is the most important point. Your core group can not be a bunch of followers. The team’s success hinges on the core group’s ability to outperform the other team. If they are successful, that means they are leading the charge. MacKenzie, for all his effort, is not going to put the team on his back and lead the charge. That is not what a fourth liner does. The bigger issue here is a lack of faith in the core group. If your core group cannot lead, then they are not the best and you have a big problem.
I did not pull this point out of thin air, either. I can demonstrate it by looking at conference finalists since 2006. Let’s arbitrarily say that the team’s best players would either be: one of your top 9 scoring forwards or top 4 scoring defensemen. Do you know how many times a conference finalist captain has not been in this group? Two times. Both times it was Jason Smith. First as captain of the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, then as captain of the 2008 Philadelphia Flyers.
If you want to be less generous, you can define best as top 6 scoring forwards. That brings just one more player out of the group: Dustin Brown as captain of the 2014 Los Angeles Kings. He had been top 3 in forward scoring for the 2012 Kings, but obviously trailed off. There’s a reason Anze Kopitar is now captain in Los Angeles, and not Brown.
Think about this for a second. Only three captains did not qualify as one of his team’s best players among 24 conference finalists since 2006. That is a rather low number. The idea of the high effort, low talent player as captain of a successful team is not as prevalent as you may think. It is one thing to appoint a player like that captain of a young group that is just starting. I understand doing that. This is not the Panthers though. We are past the grooming phase at this point. If this team is to take the next step, the core group has to take the reins.
That is not to say that offensive production is directly related to leadership ability. It is not. The team’s top scorer is not always it’s best leader. Rather, what I am saying is that the best teams are always lead by their core group. Not because the core group is entitled to lead, but because they have no choice. They have to lead.
I also think it is important to name the captain from the core group for stability. Look at the tenures of Stanley Cup winning captains since 2006:
- Jonathan Toews (8 seasons)
- Dustin Brown (8 seasons)
- Sidney Crosby (9 seasons)
- Zdeno Chara (10 seasons)
- Nicklas Lidstrom (6 seasons)
- Rod Brind’Amour (5 seasons, 2 tenures)
- Scott Niedermayer (4 seasons, 2 tenures)
This is more about the core group, than the captain himself. If your core group is the best and relatively young, it should also have staying power. Thus, if you name a captain from such a group, they should be able to hold the C for an extended amount of time.
The Panthers have never had a captain for more than 4 seasons. Their last two captains have lasted just two seasons. It’s time to break that cycle and commit to a long-term captain. Unfortunately, Derek MacKenzie is not a long-term option. It is unlikely that he is going to have an extended run as captain at 35.
This criticism is not about hating on on MacKenzie. He’s a fine citizen and does well in his role. My issue is not with him. Instead, my issue is with the philosophy behind naming him captain. The time for stop gaps has ended. The time for the core group to rise up and lead this team has begun. That’s what happens on winning teams. The captain should reflect this reality. Alas, he does not.
Stats were researched using hockey-reference.com