The last (and only) time the Flames have gone a season without a captain was 1990-91. Since Joe Nieuwendyk assumed the role the following year, Calgary has had a serving captain every season for the last three decades. With the departure of Mark Giordano, though, the position is vacant ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least on the outside, it seems perfectly reasonable to wait a little before naming Giordano’s replacement.
The last time Calgary was captain-less for any stretch of time was the spring of 2013 following Jarome Iginla’s trade to Pittsburgh. A few months later, Giordano began his run of eight years wearing the ‘C’. Even back then it was a no-brainer decision for the Flames and their fans alike. I’m not certain there’s as obvious a choice staring the team in the face this time around.
Giordano embodied so much of the classic definition of an NHL captain. He had been with the Flames for almost a decade at the time. Giordano left it all on the ice every time he was out there. His story was easy to identify with: twice undrafted (OHL and NHL) and frequently overlooked, Giordano defied the odds to become a regular defenceman at the highest level. And at the time, he had turned into one of Calgary’s best players. The choice eight years ago was a slam dunk.
Of course, it’s not like there aren’t good candidates right now. Mikael Backlund, Chris Tanev, Milan Lucic, and Matthew Tkachuk have all been discussed as heirs to the captain’s role. But I’m not sure there’s someone as unanimous as Giordano was amongst players, team brass, and fans. At least not right this instant.
What if they don’t?
The cut and dried answer to the above question is to start the year without a captain and roll with alternates only. For reference, the Flames gave A’s to Doug Gilmour, Al MacInnis, and Tim Hunter for the aforementioned 1990-91 season. They could easily replicate something similar with this roster.
By going down that road, it would allow Calgary’s next captain to become clear naturally. Maybe they go the entire year without making a decision, or maybe the right choice emerges after a few months. Essentially, that’s the approach that has been laid out by general manager Brad Treliving and head coach Darryl Sutter early in training camp. The only question is if there’s an internal deadline like, say, on or around Oct. 16.
Now, let me make one thing clear: I’m not in the locker room and only write this as an observer of the team. While fans, management, and marketing departments all have input into a decision like this, the most important voices remain those of the players, and rightfully so. That’s the way it should be.
With that said, the most interesting name for me is Elias Lindholm. On the ice, he’s the perfect “by example” leader and is the picture of consistency and reliability. What doesn’t Lindholm do well? He’s responsible defensively, he’s physical and plays with an edge, he excels on the power play and the penalty kill, and never cheats the details. It might take a little for Lindholm to grow into the role, but knowing he’s signed long-term, I think there’s real potential.
Then there’s Tkachuk who, prior to last season, was earmarked by many as the obvious successor to Giordano. But knowing how last year went, and considering his uncertain contract situation, I can understand why the organization would be hesitant to go down that road with Tkachuk right away.
By waiting, it opens up different options for the Flames. Maybe we see a resurgent Sean Monahan this season and he leans into a leadership role. Perhaps Johnny Gaudreau signs a new contract and wants to seal his commitment to the team. Those aren’t necessarily probable outcomes, but they’re not impossible..and they’d likely only materialize by waiting to name a new captain.
What if they do?
Despite all of the above, it won’t surprise me one bit if Calgary opts to name a captain prior to the regular season opener. History isn’t a surefire predictor of the future, but knowing how the last 30 years have gone, the odds are against starting the season without the position filled. And that’s perfectly fine, too.
If that’s the route the team opts to take, Backlund and Tanev have to be the clubhouse leaders.
Backlund has been with the Flames for more than 14 years dating back to the 2007 NHL Draft. He’s battled through ups and downs over the last decade and, like Lindholm, never cheats on effort. Backlund has also carved out an important community role and is involved charitably as much as any Calgary athlete I’ve covered. And, crucially, Backlund is extremely well-liked and respected.
As for Tanev, well, it’s hard not to buy into what he brings on an nightly basis. The on-ice similarities to Giordano are obvious, but his path to the show shares a lot of commonality, too. Like Gio, Tanev wasn’t drafted in the OHL or the NHL and didn’t pop onto radars until later than most.
So sure, personally I think there’s a lot of wisdom in waiting a while to name the 16th captain in franchise history. If the Flames feel differently, though, it’s tough to go wrong with either one of Tanev or Backlund.