Earlier this week, Martin Erat joined the Nashville Predators’ team captains as an alternate. Here at Predlines, we can’t think of a more deserving guy to don the “A.” He may not be the flashiest player, and he might only occasionally be the highest-scoring, but in his 10 seasons with the Preds he’s shown consistency and longevity. When it comes down to selecting team captains, these might be the top two aspects coaches and other players take into account.
There isn’t an official rulebook on the subject, so every franchise does things a little bit differently in terms of how team captains are selected and what’s expected of them. Some clubs allow players to vote in their captains; others put the choice squarely in the hands of the coaching staff. Some teams prefer to have their stars fill team leadership roles; others prefer to place that responsibility with their more seasoned veterans.
With so little regularity, it might all get a bit confusing at times, especially when the only official function of captains in the NHL is to serve as the liaison between referees and fellow teammates. Not to downplay the importance of this role, but anyone who follows hockey knows it’s not that simple. Team captains do much more than argue calls, and good leadership can mean the difference between energetic, in-your-face hockey and slop.
It may seem a bit redundant to say, but team captains are there to lead the team both on and off the ice. Captains need to be able to their team fired up, be it through locker room speeches, coaching on the fly or purely through in-game zeal. They should know when and how to stick up for their teammates, and when it’s okay to give a guy that extra retaliation bump. Team captains should also know when a teammate needs a pat on the back or some constructive reprimanding. In this sense, the captains are there to serve as examples. It’s a way of letting some of the younger guys know, “Hey, if you want to make it in this league, on this squad… if you want to win, this is what you have to do.”
This is where the selection of veteran players like Martin Erat and Shea Weber can be a boon to the team. Both have been with the franchise for their entire careers. Both have developed into strong, heads-up hockey players. They don’t fluster easily or break down under pressure. They don’t take too many unnecessary penalties. They look for assists before goals instead of showboating or attempting to obtain personal glory. But most importantly, they know the Preds’ system of defense-first hockey and what’s expected of them. It’s this familiarity with the system and style of play that coaches are looking at here, in part because it’s the captains’ responsibility to take younger players under their wings and make sure they produce for the team.
The move from the minors to the big league can be daunting for most players. The caliber of play skyrockets as does the pressure to perform. Everything is bigger: the crowds, the hits, the money at stake. It’s no wonder most call-ups spend their first few seasons in the NHL finding their feet, if they even stay that long. Veteran leadership eases this transition.
It works, too. As players get older and gain experience, they play a more aware, positional brand of hockey. They read plays better and spend less time chasing after the puck. Team captains show the younger guys that it’s just as important to work smart as it is to work hard. It’s easier to pick up on all of these nuances of the game if you can watch someone else put it into practice, and the young players on Nashville’s squad have some excellent examples to learn from.