Ryan Suter sees the ‘A’ as little more than a letter. Yet all who see the Nashville Predators’ defenseman playing for the United States during the 2010 Winter Olympics, which began on Friday, will know that USA Hockey regards him as a someone with unique leadership qualities.
The 25-year-old is one of four alternate captains named last month by USA Hockey, which long ago targeted him as someone who sets a positive example. Back in 2005, he served as captain of the U.S. Junior National Team at the World Junior Championships.
“I think everyone on that (Olympic) team is a leader, has been a leader,” Suter said. “I think I just get to wear it on my jersey.”
He gets to do the same thing sometimes when he plays for the Predators. Coach Barry Trotz rotates the ‘A’ between several players in support of captain Jason Arnott. But the question is: When will Suter — the franchise’s top draft choice in 2003 — or another player drafted by the Predators get to wear the captain’s ‘C?’
Of the 27 captains in the NHL at the moment [three clubs don’t have one], 14 were drafted by the team they currently lead. That’s more than the number who were acquired in a trade (seven) or through free agency (six) combined. Included in the 14 is Colorado’s Adam Foote, who was drafted by that franchise when it was still in Quebec then spent two-plus seasons in Columbus before he came back to Colorado late in 2007-08.
For all of the Predators’ emphasis on the draft and their desire to develop from within — more than half the current roster was drafted by Nashville and never has worn another NHL jersey – the team has yet to develop one of their own as a captain.
“It’s a title, and when we’re drafting, we’re drafting players we believe can help us win,” general manager David Poile said. “You also hope that they have certain characteristics, but when you’re talking about the captain, you want the best player on your teams who’s suited for that role, whether it was someone you drafted or acquired through a trade or free agency.”
At the helm
Nashville’s history of captains includes two free agents (Arnott, and initial captain Tom Fitzgerald), one trade acquisition (Kimmo Timonen) and one expansion draft selection (Greg Johnson). Scott Walker, another 1998 expansion draft pick, also held the position briefly on an interim basis when Johnson was out for an extended time with an injury.
The current leadership group includes draft picks such as Suter, Shea Weber and David Legwand, the first selection in franchise history. The prevailing feeling among many is the Weber is the most likely choice based on his combination of performance, and professionalism.
Around the league, there are plenty of franchises with homegrown talent in charge of the locker room.
Vincent Lecavalier, the only player drafted ahead of Legwand in 1998, has been Tampa Bay’s captain since the star of last season. Three players taken in the 2003 draft in Nashville — Carolina’s Eric Staal, Los Angeles’ Dustin Brown and Philadelphia’s Mike Richards — hold that spot for their current teams.
“I think you’re seeing that in the evolution in some of our young guys, especially the three young defensemen (Suter, Weber and Dan Hamhuis),” coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re guys who have been drafted here and have gone through Milwaukee and have done all of that. They have been leaders at every level. Now they’re feeling more comfortable being a bigger piece here. That’s just an evolution that happens.”
Not always. Sometimes it happens much more quickly than that.
One of the most successful moves in recent NHL history was the 20-year run of Steve Yzerman as the Detroit Red Wings’ captain. In Yzerman’s second season in that role the Red Wings won their first division title in 23 years, and during the 20 years he held that role the team won three Stanley Cup titles and became the league’s most successful franchise.
"When I was looking for a captain, I wanted a guy with the Red Wings crest tattooed on his chest," former Detroit coach Jacques Demers, who named Yzerman, then 23, the youngest captain in team history.
Current NHL captains include 22-year-old Sidney Crosby at Pittsburgh, who has had the job since the start of 2007-08, 24-year-old Alexander Ovechkin in Washington and 21-year-old Jonathan Toews at Chicago. All three teams are among the most successful in the league this season.
In contrast is 34-year-old Bryan McCabe, the captain in Florida. He was made a captain of the New York Islanders at 22 and had the job for one season. When he finally got his next opportunity — this season — he was the first to say he did not do a good job when he was younger.
Too much, too soon?
“We all know that it worked out with Steve Yzerman, but was he ready when they first made him the captain? Maybe not,” Poile said. “The ‘C’ can weigh pretty heavy on a young player. Crosby seems strong enough to handle it. So does Ovechkin. Not all of them are. … I think it can be too much, too fast for some of them.
“Usually, you need a veteran who has been through a lot in the league and is prepared to handle all that goes along with being a captain.”
With that in mind it is worth noting that Legwand, at 29, is the oldest Predators’ draft pick on the roster. Martin Erat, at 27, is next. The majority of them are 25 or younger.
Fitzgerald was a month shy of his 30th birthday when he was named Nashville’s captain. Johnson was 31 and Arnott was 33.
When Suter was named captain of the U.S. Junior National Team he was just the 16th American to compete in that tournament three times, which he meant he had a significant amount of experience at that level.
“You get (to be captain) because you’ve played hard, because you’ve set an example with your play, you’re not selfish and your work hard,” Suter said. “…It’s not a big issue. Captains just get to wear a ‘C’ on their jersey, really. … It’s not something you think about. If it happens, it happens.”
One of these days it’s got to happen for a Predators’ draft pick. But when?