Five years ago, before the start of the 2015-16 season, Andy Greene was named the captain of the New Jersey Devils following the retirement of Bryce Salvador. He was a stalwart defensively, especially in the years before and immediately after his ascension to the captaincy, and even if you thought his play was deteriorating with age over the last couple of seasons, there was no doubt that he was a great presence in the locker room. The “C” on his sweater was deserved and well-earned.
After his trade and reunification with Lou Lamoriello over on the Island back in February, the Devils decided not to immediately name a new captain, instead having different players taking the “A” for the rest of the season, namely Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac. These were logical choices, as Nico and Kyle are top line forwards who have already been on the team longer than many on the roster (which is crazy to believe), and Zajac has been around the team forever, longer than Andy Greene was in fact.
Heading into the next season, whenever that may begin, the Devils will need to name a new captain. The logical choice would probably be to choose one of those three guys who were assistant captains last season, but there are a couple of other potential options as well. Let’s look at each of the choices the team has.
Perhaps the most logical choice for captain, at least in my opinion, is Nico. A former first overall pick, the Devils have him locked up through 2027, longer than they have anyone else under contract for by a large margin. The next longest deal on the team, held by both Damon Severson and Andreas Johnsson, only run through 2023. Giving Nico the “C” would create long term stability around the position. Going back to the winning years, Scott Stevens was the captain, and seemed like he held the “C” forever. More recently, however, it has changed hands way more frequently. Zach Parise was only team captain for one year before leaving. Bryce Salvador was captain for only a few seasons before retiring, and now Greene was captain for the better part of five seasons. That is a decent amount of time with Greene at the helm, but compared to Stevens holding the position from 1992 through 2004, it doesn’t quite compare.
Nico is under contract for 7 years, and is only 21 years old. He will be 28 when this contract expires, still in his prime. Assuming the Devils still want him then, and sign him through his mid-30s as you might expect, it means that he could be the captain of the Devils for even longer than Stevens was. If he has the charisma and desire to be the leader in the locker room and keep this team motivated and disciplined, he could be a huge boon as a captain for that long.
This doesn’t even mention that he also is a heck of a hockey player, perhaps the best on the team. And he will continue to get better as well. Greene was a great locker room presence and a great defensemen for years there, but towards the end, was definitely nowhere near the best player on the team. Stevens might not always have been the best either, but he was almost always one of the best. Nico would be the same. He might not always be the best on the team in the years to come, but he will most likely be one of the best for an extremely long time. He is a very solid choice for the next captain.
Palms would be another solid choice to hold the “C”. He is one of the better players on the team and is a plus presence in the locker room. However, there is one major issue at this current time. Unless he signs an extension this offseason, this is his last year of his current deal. If he does not sign an extension, and cannot come to a mutual agreement with the team, he could enter free agency next summer, and could sign somewhere else. That would put him in the same position as Parise was, being captain for only one season before leaving. Now, Lou made Parise captain partially to enforce his ties to the organization in hopes to make him want to stay more, but ultimately it did not work. Theoretically, there’s a chance it could work with Palmieri, and it could make him want to stay more, but that argument seems rather flimsy to me. If the Devils offer him $6 mil a year in his next deal, but he can get $7 from somewhere else, he will probably take the extra money, regardless if he was captain or not.
Now, as a quick aside, I can see arguments both ways with regards to re-signing Kyle. On the yes side, he is one of the only pure scorers on this team right now. Drafting Alexander Holtz should be a boost to that, but he is extremely young and won’t be in New Jersey right away. Even with the draft class and bringing in Johnsson, the forward corps still needs scorers, and at this point, no one is better at that than Palmieri. He is also only 29 right now, and will be 30 after his current contract expires, so he still has several quality seasons left before father time takes over. On the negative, it will be expensive to keep him. This isn’t a problem for NJ and their massive amount of cap room, but the expensive part will come into play in terms of contract length. He will get a 6-7 year deal if he wants it. That means he will still be making bank when he is 36-37 years old, when he might not be worth that amount of money anymore. He could become somewhat of an albatross in the last year or two of his next deal if it is long enough.
In the end, I would still side with bringing him back on a 5-6 year deal if they can make that work, as the team needs goal scorers, plain and simple. He is also a great locker room guy, like Greene, so even when he is not at the top of his game, he will be a guy you want around. So in my mind, while I think Nico is probably a better option, I think naming him a captain would be a fine choice, so long as the team agrees with me and signs him to an extension.
The third assistant captain from last season has some marks in his favor. One, he is the longest tenured Devil at this point, and by a large margin. He has been extremely loyal to this organization, and rewarding him with the “C” for his many years of service to the team is not something to totally ignore. And while I know that many have lamented at his play at many times over the last decade and a half, wishing he would produce more offense, he has always been a quality center, a great two-way player, a positive possession player relative to the rest of the team, and the team’s best faceoff man. He might not be the star of the team, but without guys like Zajac to fill the roster, teams don’t win Stanley Cups.
That being said, there are two knocks against Zajac that I think should disqualify him from being the next team captain. First, his age. Yes, you want someone with experience being a team captain, and the one major knock against Nico is that he might not have enough of it at only 21 years old. However, Zajac is currently 35 years old. How many years left does he have left before he retires? Or even, how many quality seasons of hockey left before his game really takes a dive? It would be exactly like it was with Salvador, who was never at the top of his game as captain, dealing with injuries and age.
Also, and related to that, he is only under contract for one more season, just like with Palmieri. He could also leave the team after next season, which would make him a one-year captain. Combined with his age, I really think naming him captain would not be the best idea. I love that he is an assistant captain, and should absolutely remain there given all of the positives I mentioned above, but I would not promote him beyond that.
While I think the battle over the next team captain really comes down to those above, and specifically Nico or Kyle, there are a couple of other names that might deserve mention. I don’t think either of these guys should be named captain at this point, but you could at least make an argument. The first would be P.K. Subban. He had an awful season last year, and has only been around the team for a very short time, but he is also the most visible player on the team in terms of popularity and media outreach. He was considered a superstar in this league for years, and was very visible during his time in Montreal. If the Devils wanted someone who is a real positive influence not only in a locker room, but in the hockey community at large, PK would be the guy. He is also only 31, so he is not near retirement age.
The other name to mention is Damon Severson, although perhaps he should be considered for an assistant captain first. He has been around this organization more than most at this point, as he was signed in 2012 and has been with the big club since the 2014-15 season. And as I mentioned earlier, he currently has the second longest contract with the team, being signed through 2023. He also, despite his 430 games of NHL experience, is still only 26, so he has room to grow and can be around for a long time. I think he has a strong case to be named an assistant captain, and if you wanted to make a case to give him the “C” over these other guys, he does at least have a leg to stand on.
In the end, I think the top choice for the next captain of this team has to be Nico Hischier, although if you told me Kyle Palmieri was being given an extension, I would be absolutely fine with him as well. The only potential knock on Nico is that he is only 21, and having a captain at such a young age is definitely not normal. I agree with that; however, he does have over 200 games of NHL experience already, so it is not like he just showed up to the big club. He has been around a while, despite his age, and he has plenty of experience. He also has a strong chance to be a lifelong Devil, given the team drafted him #1 and already has him signed for a very long time. Another major contract after this one, and he could be a 2-decade Devil, like Martin Brodeur or Ken Daneyko. That is someone you want to have as your captain, as he will come to define what it means to be a Devil over the next decade plus. Could you give it to Zajac for a few years first, then give it to Nico when he is like 24 or 25? Sure, but at that point, why wait? This team is already rebuilding. Let it rebuild around its future captain and let him learn now how to be the locker room leader that will be needed in the years to come.
That’s my thought, however. What do you think? Who would you choose to be the next captain of this team? Why would you make that choice? What are the pros and cons of some of these choices? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!