It’s been a good while since a member of the Rangers took the ice with a ‘C’ on the front of his jersey – Feb. 26, 2018, to be exact, the date their last serving captain, Ryan McDonagh, was shipped to the newly-crowned Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
By all means, McDonagh was an outstanding captain through his tone-setting example of spirited commitment and dependable all-around play. Since McDonagh was shed from the Blueshirts’ dressing room as part of a youth-driven rebuild, the Rangers have cycled alternate captains.
Last season, the quartet of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Marc Staal, and Jesper Fast rotated the alternate captain’s ‘A.’ With Staal traded to the Detroit Red Wings and Fast signed by the Carolina Hurricanes, this leaves Zibanejad and Kreider as the most likely candidates to be offered the captaincy.
Kreider is now the longest-tenured Ranger now that Staal and Henrik Lundqvist no longer call Madison Square Garden home, and 2020-21 will be the first year of his seven-year, $45.5 million extension. He is the only member of the Blueshirts signed through the 2026-27 season.
The 29-year-old has only known what it means to be a Ranger and was a part of several deep playoff runs – including 2012, 2014, and 2015. For all these reasons, giving Kreider the captain’s ‘C’ makes plenty of sense.
Zibanejad’s captaincy credentials are also impressive. His growth into a dominant, two-way center is the perfect example for young teammates to follow. He’s not a loud, in-your-face personality, but he doesn’t have to be; Zibanejad’s play does all the talking. He’s the kind of player you want on the ice when chasing and defending leads.
His six game-winning goals last season tied for 10th overall in the NHL and led the Rangers, edging Kreider’s five GWGs.
So, it’s clear that Zibanejad and Kreider are deserving candidates…but what about the wildcard possibilities?
Artemi Panarin is the most talented skater to don the Rangers’ uniform in some time. He will continue to be an automatic Hart Trophy candidate for years to come.
The electrifying wing is the face of the franchise and is signed through 2025-26.
Panarin is more of an outward personality than Kreider and Zibanejad. His joyful nature, uninhibitedness, and elite-level play is reminiscent of former Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr. Panarin signed with the Rangers to play on the big stage and is motivated by having responsibility placed on his back. It takes big, broad shoulders to handle New York pressure and that’s no problem for Panarin.
Another outside-the-box candidate is Jacob Trouba. The minute-eating defenseman is the leader of a primarily youthful flock of blue liners. Whether he’s given the ‘C’ or an ‘A’ next season, Trouba will inherit the role vacated by Staal’s departure to show the ropes to young defensemen. His brand of leadership is more by-example than “rah” but he’s been trusted with leadership roles since his teenage years in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
Then again, the Rangers could elect to continue on with a foursome of rotating alternate captains. That said, the Blueshirts are moving closer to contention and it feels like the right time to install a full-time captain.
Follow Sean Hartnett on Twitter: @HartnettHockey