When Bo Horvat was named the Vancouver Canucks’ captain in 2019, it felt inevitable. Right from when he was drafted, Horvat was held up as a future captain of the Canucks and his maturity made it feel like a natural development.
However, Horvat is gone, traded at the deadline last season to the New York Islanders, and he has no obvious heir.
The three candidates typically named in captaincy debates are Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and J.T. Miller. All three have solid arguments in their favour but also reasons why they might not be the best choice.
The arguments in favour of captaincy
Pettersson is the team’s best player, with a quiet confidence and diligent work ethic that reflects past Canucks captains like Markus Näslund and Henrik Sedin. He raises the bar with his performance on the ice and his effort in the gym — the type of leader who leads by example, blazing a trail for others to follow.
Hughes is the team’s number one defenceman and grew into a more vocal leader last season, with a willingness to speak up in difficult situations. When the Canucks addressed the crowd at the end of their final home game, Hughes was chosen by the team to take the mic and speak. He’s the type of leader who advocates for his teammates and acts as a middle-man between the players and the coaching staff.
Miller has been one of the team’s top players since he arrived in Vancouver and is a veteran with tremendous passion. He plays with grit and a willingness to drop the gloves when necessary to step up for his teammates. He’s been one of the most vocal Canucks players on and off the ice, speaking bluntly and honestly when the team isn’t performing well. He’s the type of leader to drag the team into the fight and call people out when they’re not playing up to par.
Those are the pros for all three players. But there are some cons.
Is no captain the best option?
One issue with Pettersson is that he’s sometimes too quiet. He’s not necessarily the first person coming out to speak to the media after a loss and he’s unlikely to rally his teammates with a rousing speech — though perhaps just a few words from him would speak more than a dozen from a louder player.
The bigger issue is that Pettersson doesn’t have a contract beyond this season and has equivocated on the issue of signing long-term. Teams typically want a captain to be a long-term commitment and perhaps there’s too much uncertainty about Pettersson’s future.
As for Hughes, he’s still developing as a leader, really only stepping into a leadership role this past season. While well-spoken, he’s still on the quieter side, and he’s not the type to play much of a physical game. Generally speaking, he’s even more stoic than Pettersson and there are many who believe that the Canucks need a more emotional captain.
And yet, the issue with Miller is a lack of mental focus when his emotions get the best of him. At times, that can lead to Miller giving up on plays, which isn’t a good look for a potential captain.
With all of that in mind, maybe the best choice for the Canucks is to just not have a captain at all next season.
Let’s keep in mind that none of these three captaincy candidates has ever been a team captain before at any level. According to Elite Prospects, Miller was once an alternate captain at the World Juniors for Team USA, as was Hughes, who also served as an alternate on his AAA U-16 team. As for Pettersson, last season was the Canucks was his first time as an alternate captain.
So, the best move might be to let all three just be alternate captains for a season and let them grow as leaders. From there, perhaps a captain will naturally emerge.
Or, hear me out, why not three captains?
The Canucks have gone without a captain twice in their history. In the 1974-75 season, the Canucks chose not to name a new captain to replace the retired Orland Kurtenbach. The other time came in the 2018-19 season after Henrik Sedin retired and before Horvat was named the next captain.
But there’s another example from Canucks history that they could emulate this coming season: co-captains.
A young Trevor Linden was the obvious heir apparent to Stan Smyl as the next captain of the Canucks but he was just 20 years old in the 1990-91 season and the team didn’t want to throw him into the deep end at that young an age. Still, they wanted Linden to be captain, so they made the unusual choice of naming him and two other players as co-captains.
Along with Linden, the Canucks named veteran defenceman Doug Lidster and the recently-acquired offensive catalyst, Dan Quinn, as captains.
The three served as captains together for most of the season until Quinn was traded alongside Garth Butcher to the St. Louis Blues for Geoff Courtnall, Cliff Ronning, Sergio Momesso, Robert Dirk, and a fifth-round pick. Linden wouldn’t be named as the team’s sole captain until the 1991-92 season.
Now, the NHL rules specifically prohibit co-captains but that’s only within a single game. Linden, Lidster, and Quinn rotated the captaincy on a game-by-game basis, with the other two players wearing an “A” as alternate captains when the other had the “C.”
The Canucks could do the same with Pettersson, Hughes, and Miller. Give all three of them the “C” — let each of them be captain one game at a time.
Look, if being a co-captain was good enough for the best captain in Canucks history — Trevor Linden — it's good enough for Pettersson, Hughes, and Miller.
Sharing the captain's "C"
If it seems to difficult to choose between Pettersson, Hughes, and Miller, why choose at all?
Each of them brings something a little bit different to the table in their leadership style, so let each of them be a captain and lead in their individual ways. Let each of them be accountable to fans and the media and also hold their teammates to account. And then, by the end of the season, hopefully it’s clear who should remain the team’s captain in the future.
By having co-captains, the Canucks would be asking each of those three players to step up this season while simultaneously spreading the load so that it doesn’t fall on just one player.
Each player would get to wear the captain’s “C” for a third of the games and an “A” for the rest. Sure, it would be a small nightmare for the team’s equipment managers to coordinate, but maybe it would be worth it.
It’s not unprecedented around the NHL to have more than one captain, some for longer than just one season. Lanny McDonald and Jim Peplinski were co-captains of the Calgary Flames for a whopping six seasons in the eighties. Rick Middleton and Ray Bourque were co-captains of the Boston Bruins for three seasons, also in the eighties. Danny Briere and Chris Drury were co-captains of the Buffalo Sabres for two seasons in the 2000s.
As a more recent example, Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk were co-captains of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2017-18 season.
Sure, that Hurricanes team missed the playoffs for the ninth season in a row and immediately went back to having just one captain the following season, but that shouldn’t dissuade the Canucks from pursuing a potentially good idea.
Here’s the thing: the captaincy isn’t really as important as it’s made out to be. Real leaders don’t need a letter on their chest to lead and a team’s leadership group goes beyond the captains and alternate captains.
For example, Jannik Hansen never once wore a letter during his career with the Canucks, but if you ask any Canucks player from that era, they’ll tell you how he helped set the tone for the team with his effort in practice and spoke up when necessary to get the team back on track. He was a leader without needing a letter.
Whoever the Canucks choose as captain — or even if they don’t choose anyone at all — Pettersson, Hughes, and Miller will need to lead in the coming season. Give one of them the “C,” none of them the “C”, or all three of them the “C” and they’ll still need to step up as leaders in the same way.