Overall, 15 New York Islanders players have worn the “C” since their inaugural season in 1972-73, but who was the best captain and who was the worst? And where does current captain Anders Lee rank?
Denis Potvin Is No. 1
Any list should have Denis Potvin at the top. He captained four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1979-80 through 1982-83. He was the longest-tenured captain, serving for seven seasons through to 1987. Potvin is also in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Clark Gillies Is No. 2
Clark Gillies, who was a tough, gritty leader, was captain for three seasons from 1976 through 1979, yielding the role to Potvin. Gillies is also in the Hall of Fame. Potvin and Gillies are the only Islander captains in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Michael Peca Is No. 6
Michael Peca was a leader before he became an Islander. He led the Buffalo Sabres to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999 and was known as a hard-hitting, defensive player. In his career, Peca twice won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the game. After he and the Sabres could not agree on a contract, Peca was traded to the Islanders in 2001 and he led them to their first playoff berth in seven seasons.
Anders Lee Is No. 7
Under Lee’s captaincy, the Islanders advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals this past season for the first time since 1993.
Lee, who succeeded John Tavares in October, 2018, was coming off a 40-goal season when coach Barry Trotz named him the 15th captain in franchise history.
Said Trotz at the time: “When I first got the opportunity to coach the Islanders, I talked to every player. I talked about everything from last year to which players you really respect, all that. Through the whole group, I went through training camp and observed who led the right way, did things the right way, all those things to be a pro. It was clear to me, clear as day, that Anders would be the 15th captain of the Islanders.”
Lee’s scoring fell off after that 40-goal season in 2017-18. He had 28 goals in 2018-19 and only 20 last season. His production also fell off in the Eastern Conference Finals, where he failed to tally a single goal in the six-game series with Tampa. Lee has been captain for only two seasons, so at age 30, he needs a bounce-back year to prove that wearing the “C” is not too heavy of a burden.
Here is how I would rank the Islander captains:
- Denis Potvin
- Clark Gillies
- Ed Westfall
- Pat Flatley
- John Tavares
- Michael Peca
- Anders Lee
Ed Westfall was The Original
Ed Westfall was the original captain of the team for five seasons. The Islanders missed the playoffs only the first two seasons with Westfall as captain. Westfall was a different mold from many captains to come because he was a defensive specialist as a forward.
In 1975, at age 34, Westfall led the Islanders into their first playoffs and all the way to the Stanley Cup semifinals, scoring five goals and 10 assists in the playoffs following a 22-goal regular season.
In 1977, Westfall was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Pat Flatley never emerged as a scorer, but he should be on anyone’s list as best captains. He wore the “C” for five seasons from 1991-92 to 1995-96. By the end, Flatley was 32 and pretty much finished. He scored only eight goals in his final season with the Islanders and had a minus-24 rating. The club went into a downturn for several years after that. But Flatley was captain when the Islanders advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993 so that accomplishment bolsters his case to be ranked in the top five.
Although John Tavares did not endear himself to Islanders fans when he bolted for the Maple Leafs in free agency before the 2018-19 season, he was a loyal captain for five years from 2013-14 to 2017-18.
A No. 1 pick overall draft pick in 2009, Tavares was perhaps the most offensively gifted of the Islanders captains. But in two playoff appearances, the club couldn’t get beyond the second round with Tavares there. He’ll likely be a Hall of Famer once his career is over.
The longest-serving captains were Potvin (8), Westfall (5), Tavares (5), Flatley (5), Brent Sutter (5), Michael Peca (3), and Gillies (3). There were many who served only two seasons or less, including Mark Streit, Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Alexei Yashin, Kenny Jonsson, and Trevor Linden. And one, Bryan McCabe, served only one season as captain.
The leanest years, when the Islanders were watching the playoffs from the sidelines, were with Streit, Weight, Guerin, Jonsson, Linden, and McCabe. For a five-year span from 2007-08 to 2011-12, the Islanders couldn’t get into the postseason with captains Guerin, Weight, and Streit.
An even longer playoff drought occurred over seven seasons from 1994-95 to 200-01. The captains of those ships were Flatley (who was at the end of his career), McCabe, Linden, and Jonsson.
Jonsson may have been the worst of the Islander captains. The defenseman was a serviceable player, but he was too quiet and didn’t seem equipped to lead. He relinquished the captaincy after the 2000-01 campaign to Peca and the Islanders became a playoff team again.
Captains come in all sizes and stripes. Some lead with loud voices. Others are quiet and lead by example.
Some believe that the best captains should be the best players on your team. An argument can be made that only two Islander captains were the best on their clubs, and we’re talking Tavares and Potvin.
Ex-Captains Describe the Job
Former NHL captain Scott Mellanby (Florida Panthers and Atlanta Thrashers) joined former captains Rick Vaive (Toronto) and Yvan Cournoyer (Montreal) last Thursday on a Zoom call to discuss what kind of attributes go into making a great captain.
“The captain is very important to a team,” said Cournoyer, who took over the “C” in 1975 following the retirement of Henri Richard. “He has to make sure the team is first and the captain is second.”
Vaive was a reluctant captain, but even as a 50-goal scorer in the 1980s, his best intentions were undercut by cantankerous owner Harold Ballard.
“Harold came to me one day and said, ‘You’re our captain,’ and I’m sitting there and I’m 22 years old,” Vaive said on the Zoom call. “And we’ve got a fairly old team. And I’m thinking, ‘Holy, cow.’ I knew I wasn’t ready. But I knew if I said no to Harold, he was going to trade me. And I loved Toronto.”
It was also a different time. Vaive said he couldn’t go to the coaches with issues that had arisen with the players. “They weren’t going to listen to me,” the former Leaf captain said. “I couldn’t talk to the general manager either. The coaches and general manager didn’t care what we thought.”
As a captain, Mellanby said, you have to be a peacemaker and a dealmaker in talking with teammates, management, and ownership. He owes his leadership abilities, he said, to the fact that his teammates trusted him.
“They saw a genuineness in me,” he said. “It’s not something I tried to do. It’s just who you are.”
But there’s one thing Mellanby said he lacked as a captain. He wasn’t the best player on the team, like Wayne Gretzky was with the Oilers or Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby were with the Penguins.
“I wish I was a better player,” Mellanby said, “because when you have a great player who’s a great leader, you can win the Stanley Cup.”