After a full season without a captain after Eric Staal’s departure, a summer of questions and then suddenly a sense of urgency and a schedule even with Bill Peters’ comments at media day on September 5, the situation was resolved today.
The team announced that Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk would be alternating captains and Jeff Skinner would be the lone alternate captain. Not mentioned directly but also newsworthy is the fact that Victor Rask will no longer be an alternate captain and also the fact that Justin Williams is not an alternate captain.
I find the announcement today numerous on multiple levels.
The public relations and first impression angle
Reactions were mixed but my conversations and browsing of Twitter seemed to suggest that many were not thrilled with the non-decision decision that is still leadership by committee despite the ‘C’ being back in the locker room.
My initial reaction which I posted on Twitter was thus:
Initial reaction to .@NHLCanes announcement: Big fuss was made (accidentally?) about picking a captain only to not actually pick a captain.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) October 5, 2017
After some time to contemplate the announcement today, I still stand by this initial reaction. When Coach Bill Peters suddenly stated that the team would have a captain by the start of the season, the hype engine was fueled. Would it be Skinner? Staal? Newcomer Williams? A surprise? What would the decision be. The fact that the team has two co-captains and that the expected version of a decision was not made does have a ‘What?! That’s it! (sigh)’ type of feel to it.
My starting point for assessing the captain decision
Whenever discussing the captain situation and trying put an informed opinion to it, I always start with two caveats.
The first is to say that the general public and even the most inside of media have only a partial view of the situation. If I watch a Hurricanes game with the aim of evaluating a players’s performance in that specific game, I have all of the data/information necessary to make an evaluation. People can agree or disagree with my assessment, but it is based on all of the information available. But that is far from true for the captain situation. We do get a public view for players that includes some element of their leadership. But there is also a significant component that happens behind the scenes and behind closed doors. So even if someone does every bit of research possible, he/she cannot say that he/she has considered all of the information relevant to the decision.
The second caveat is to say the that Carolina Hurricanes brain trust is incredibly well staffed to make a decision on a captain. Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour were captains with both the Hurricanes and elsewhere and hoisted the Stanley Cup wearing a letter. Coach Bill Peters came from a Detroit organization that had a couple great captains during his time and also an incredible run of making the playoffs that showed that the team knew what it took to win year in and year out. And past that core, the Hurricanes also have (or had in one case) Glen Wesley, Ray Whitney, Joe Nieuwendyk and Cory Stillman in the organization. If any team is equipped with the right people to make the right decision on the captaincy, the Hurricanes should rank highly in this regard.
Shorter version is that the public does not have all of the information relevant to the captain decision, but the Hurricanes brass who is incredibly qualified to make the decision does.
What about the two A’s?
To be direct, I am not a fan. My preference was to name Justin Williams the captain with the aim of having him be a bridge to a next captain in 1-2 years. Even if the Hurricanes went a different direction, I would have preferred a single captain. As long as the right person is in the room, I think it just creates a focal point for attention and leadership that is more powerful than the leadership by committee thing where everyone is in charge but at the same time no one is in charge.
What about the two choices?
None of Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner or Justin Williams would have surprised. While I would have had Justin Faulk fourth on my list, and I would not consider it a shock, the decision did surprise me. He seemed to have fallen below Skinner and Staal, and then Williams was added to the pool to boot. But again, my viewpoint that does not spend each day behind the closed doors and in the private conversations is based on a partial view of the reality.
At a basic level, I am fine with both choices. Both players have been part of the leadership of the team for a number of years now and to some degree have earned first right of refusal for the captain’s role. So despite having a different opinion, I am not in a camp that thinks that Thursday’s announcement was a catastrophic decision.
But I still would have preferred Justin Williams
But I still would have preferred Williams, and here is why…
I just think the team needs a sudden and stark shift in mindset. A significant part of it is simply personality and communication style, but Francis and Peters tone very much strikes a ‘working to get better’, ‘doing it the right way’, ‘in it for the long haul’, ‘not looking for short-term fixes’, etc. type of style.
I think a shift in mentality is in order. The Hurricanes are NOT ‘hoping to be in the mix in March.’ They are not ‘getting better’ or ‘on the right path.’ The Carolina Hurricanes need to make a meaningful shift to something along the lines of ‘We will make the playoffs this year.’
Justin Williams is the embodiment of that shift. When a 34-year old veteran with Cup wins and other options chose to come to Raleigh, he made a personal statement that he thought this team as ready to win. And Francis making a $9 million investment in a 34-year old similarly was a marked shift toward ‘win now.’ And Justin Williams’ initial press conference did not disappoint in terms of turning the dial aggressively toward ‘win now.’
Whether toes would have been stepped on or not, I think the team missed an opportunity to amplify the shift in mentality that is a critical part of the next step in the team’s rebuilding program. And even if feathers were ruffled, the goal is not to make everyone as happy as possible. The goal is to win. And in that regard, I think the spark would have been a positive.
So how does the leadership work under this new regime?
There are many who think that in today’s NHL the captaincy is overblown. All good teams are lead by multiple players that go past the formal letters anyway, and regardless of letters, different players contribute to the locker room in different ways.
But going the other direction and considering that the letters do influence roles, I think the Hurricanes situation breaks down like this.
Jordan Staal: He has fulfilled typical captain type responsibilities including spending his share of time with a microphone stuck in front of him win or lose. He also leads by example as one of the team’s best players and with his lunch pail and hard hat style of play despite being a star of the team. I think the step up for Staal as a captain is to add a little more bark to his repertoire. If the team hits a lull, I think he needs to be one of the people that rattles swords a little bit to try to create a spark.
Justin Faulk: He maybe has not been as front and center over the past couple years, but he too has been a leader for multiple years now. Somewhat similar to Staal, my hope is that adding a ‘C’ to Faulk’s jersey empowers him to just a bit more bark to his role. And this might sound strange in today’s NHL, but I actually think that 3-4 well-timed fights from Faulk could serve a valuable purpose. Recognizing that fighting is being phased out of the game and also that injury risks come with it, I still think that as long as fighting is still within the confines of the game, that a couple well-timed fights by Faulk could provide a spark and boost intensity. To be clear, I am not advocating just fighting for fighting’s sake. Rather, I think Faulk should be near the the top of the list to stand up if/when an opponent thinks maybe it can slow down the Hurricanes young, skilled and somewhat undersized (in some cases) lineup, I think Faulk is the right person to make a statement.
Justin Williams: As noted awhile back, Williams does not have wear a letter to have a leadership role. He is a three-time Cup winner with a presence and some charisma to him. Young players should still look up to him, and he should still have a role beyond logging a regular shift on the ice. My hope is that Williams does not fade into the background leadership-wise. I hope instead that he becomes a veteran who helps Staal and Faulk and that he does not at all tone down the ‘win now’ mentality that he pitched in his first media interview way back in early July.
Jeff Skinner: A bit like Williams, Skinner does not need a ‘C’ to be a difference-maker and a leader. When he starts buzzing around the offensive zone, it can be contagious. Skinner needs to continue in his role as an offensive leader and a scoring spark when needed.
The proof is in the pudding
For the first time in multiple years, the Hurricanes have a team that is playoff-worthy. But there is a critical element of execution required to realize that potential, and one can bet that leadership especially when the team faces duress will play a part in whether the Hurricanes are above the playoff cut line or have to again cling to ‘next year’ type refrains.
It is reasonable to believe that we will see somewhat different leadership dynamics with the co-captains and also the addition of Justin Williams. Right out of the gate, it is something worth watching.
What say you Canes fans?
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