Tonight, Bryce Salvador will play his first game as captain of the New Jersey Devils. The team announced his new role on Thursday; his first NHL captaincy in his career. Salvador is the tenth captain in the team's history, the fourth defenseman to get the "C," and the first defender since Scott Niedermayer. Given that he's a 36 year old defensive defenseman who's in the twilight of his career, I can't say he would be my first choice. That said, if his teammates respect him and the coaches prefer him, then I don't have any real problem with the decision.
Given the recent news, I felt it would be worth taking a quick look at the past team captains and get a general idea of how they did. Tom Gulitti wrote a quick article in the Bergen Record detailing the term of each captain in New Jersey's history. I've used that and Hockey-Reference to provide a quick basis for what they've done.
Don Lever - Devil from 1981-82 through 1983-84; Captain from 1982-83 through January 9, 1984
Lever was a left winger acquired by Colorado when they traded Lanny McDonald to Calgary. Lever was a fairly productive two-way forward, usually in the 50-to-high-60s point range throughout the 1970s. Lever scored 28 goals and 22 assists in 59 games with Colorado and represented the Rockies in the 1982 All-Star Game. When the team moved to New Jersey, the 29-year old forward was a good choice as any to be their first captain. Lever did pretty well on a pretty bad Devils team. He finished second on the team in points with 53 (23 G, 30 A) in 79 games. While 143 shots on net didn't seem like much, he was third on the team in shots then too. Unfortunately, Lever really struggled in 1983-84 and was stripped of the captaincy mid-season. He finished with 33 points (14 G, 19 A) in 70 games; his shot total dropped to 111; and while his shooting percentage dropped nearly 4%, he didn't have too many helpers. His production declined further in 1984-85 before getting traded for cash to Buffalo. He appeared in two seasons for the Sabres, but he was pretty much done in the NHL at that point.
Mel Bridgman - Devil from 1983-84 through 1986-87; Captain from January 9, 1984 to March 9, 1987
Bridgman got his start in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers, playing his first six seasons with them. He was even their team captain from 1979 through 1981. Bridgman was traded by Philadelphia to Calgary in the 1981-82 season, did well there, but was traded to New Jersey in the summer of 1983 for future Edmonton legendary executive Steve Tambellini and future coach Joel Quenneville. Bridgman was a productive, two-way, tough forward. Given his performance and past leadership role, he got the "C" when Lever faltered in the 1983-84 season. His production, at least, didn't skip a beat. The then-27 year old forward continued to be that kind of player for the Devils as their captain. He finished 1983-84 with 23 goals and 61 points, followed that up with 22 goals and 61 points, and then enjoyed his most productive season as a Devil with 23 goals and 63 points. Of course, he also racked up 121, 105, and 80 PIM respectively in those three seasons. While he was off to a decent start in the 1986-87 season, he was traded to Detroit for Chris Chicocki and a third round pick that was later drafted. By then, he was 31 and played out shortened seasons with Detroit and Vancouver, the last stop of his NHL career.
Kirk Muller - Devil from 1984-85 through 1990-91; Captain from 1987-88 through 1990-91 season
I've written about Muller some time ago. To sum it up, he was an excellent forward for the Devils. Remarkably, he became captain of the team in the 1987 summer at the young age of 20. The first ever captain to be drafted by the team didn't shrink from the responsibilities. In fact, he had his most productive season as a Devil in his first season with the "C," earning 94 points (37 G, 57 A) in 80 games. He never would beat that mark, he only matched in the 1992-93 season with Montreal. That 1987-88 season was also the first one where the Devils qualified for the postseason, another accomplishment for Muller. Muller remained a key part of the team for seasons to come until Lou unceremoniously traded him away in response to Muller holding out on a contract.
Bruce Driver - Devil from 1983-84 through 1995-96; Captain for the 1991-92 season only
Driver was an offensive-minded defenseman who witnessed the rise of the organization first hand like Muller, Aaron Broten, and Ken Daneyko. When Muller was moved, the decision was made to give Driver the "C" given his experience and role on the team. Driver continued to bomb the net with pucks and earn quite a lot of assists as he did in prior seasons in 1991-92. He actually set a career season high in shots with 205. Unfortunately, luck wasn't on his side as he shot at 3.4%. Still, 7 goals and 35 assists in 78 games is nothing to sneeze at as a defenseman while playing significant minutes and running a power play. However, he finished second that season among New Jersey defensemen in scoring that year to the man who would become the captain after him. After the 1991-92 season, Driver continued doing what he was doing and enjoyed better luck
Scott Stevens - Devil from 1991-92 through 2003-04; Captain from 1992-93 through January 9, 2004
Do I really need to tell you who Scott Stevens is? I will point out that he wasn't always the defensive defenseman stud. Throughout the 80s and up until the 1995 season, he was actually a very productive blueliner on offense. Stevens was very much a stud at both ends of the rink. His production only dropped two points in his first season as captain and he still bossed the defense. Stevens had his most productive season as a Devil in 1993-94 when he led the team with 78 points (18 G, 60 A). The offense dried up after he turned 31; but Stevens became a big-minute man in every sense of the term for the next nine seasons. Think about this: he averaged over 23 minutes per night in his late 30s, and he was excellent. Oh, he also led the team to win three Stanley Cups. I'd say he'd done good.
Scott Niedermayer - Devil from 1991-92 through 2003-04; Captain from January 9, 2004 through end of season.
While Stevens was out injured for much of the 2003-04 season with post-concussion syndrome, Scott Niedermayer was named captain of the team. Again, I don't think I need to go into detail as far as who he was. If you need a reminder, this post is a good place as any to start. Niedermayer's 2003-04 season was one of the best in his career. In addition to being the alpha dog on defense, he was important on offense with 54 points (14 G, 40 A) - finishing third on the team in scoring. Neidermayer was so dominant, he was awarded the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. No other Devil won it since and he broke Nicklas Lidstrom's three-year streak. After the 2004-05 lockout, he famously signed with Anaheim and became a legendary Duck after being a legendary Devil for so many years.
Patrik Elias - Devil from 1996-97 through current; Captain for the 2006-07 season only.
The Devils didn't have a captain in the 2005-06 season. For the 2006-07 season, Patrik Elias became the first European player to become captain of the Devils. It made sense as he was the team's top forward for several years prior. He was an absolute monster in his Hepatitis-A-recovery shortened 2005-06 season playing with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. His 45 points in 38 games is a point per game rate equivalent to 97 in 82 games. Unfortunately, Elias was struck hard with bad luck as his shooting percentage dropped to from 11.3% to 7.9% in his sole season as captain. Elias did lead the team in scoring with 69 points (21 G, 48 A) in 75 games and he did put up ten points in ten playoff games (1 G, 9 A). However, the expectations were higher even though he did everything but be super-productive. When Brent Sutter became the head coach, he took the "C" from Elias and Elias has not desired the captaincy ever since. Bad luck continued to plague him in 2007-08 (read: a shooting percentage of 7.6%), but he has since rebounded in production and has remained an important part of the team's offense to this very day. We should hope remains great for as long as he can.
Jamie Langenbrunner - Devil from 2001-02 through 2010-11; Captain from 2007-08 to January 7, 2011.
Brent Sutter wanted to name his own captain and chose the former Dallas Star, Jamie Langenbrunner. It certainly wasn't a bad decision. Ever since coming to New Jersey as part of the trade that sent Jason Arnott to Dallas in 2002, Langenbrunner was very useful to the team. He was a solid secondary scorer (think 50-60 points), he could be an excellent checker, and he could be used in all situations. He wasn't a top-line guy, but he was very good as a second or third line player. Langenbrunner was coming off a pretty good 2006-07 season with 60 points in 82 games (23 G, 37 A); but his first season as captain was cut short due to injury. 41 points (13 G, 28 A) in 64 games isn't too bad, but he was on pace to drop a few points compared to that season. However, Langenbrunner rebounded with a full season in 2008-09 where he set a career season high in goals 27) and points (69). He had some very good luck (12.7% shooting percentage), but the 33-year old was also firing a lot of shots (229) too. His 2009-10 season saw a dip in goals but not too much in points (61), but how that season ended was the beginning of the end of Langenbrunner in New Jersey. He had a falling out with coach Jacques Lemaire, lollygagged through the 2010 playoffs, and didn't have much answer for the team struggling under John MacLean in the 2010-11 season. MacLean was replaced with Lemaire near the end of 2010, and Langenbrunner was traded back to Dallas in January 2011 because of what happened in 2010. In time, I think Devils fans will remember him more for his play from 2003 through most of 2010 instead of his bitter, dramatic end.
Zach Parise - Devil from 2005-06 through 2011-12; Captain for the 2011-12 season only.
The Devils didn't name a captain until the the 2011-12 season and the decision was made to give it to Zach Parise. The fact he was signed to a one-year deal didn't matter. While he wasn't as amazingly productive as he was in 2008-09 or 2009-10, Parise played a full 2011-12 and finished with a strong 69 points (31 G, 38 A) after 82 games. After a 2010-11 season cut massively short due to injury, it was important to show he could still move as he did and shoot a ton. He did both, with 293 shots on net. He was the third best forward on the Devils last season, but he was still a crucial part of the team. Oh, and he did lead the team to a Stanley Cup Finals, the team's first since Stevens was captain. Devils fans may still be unhappy that he signed a massive deal with Minnesota, but in time, I think there will be a general appreciation of what he did in New Jersey similar to Muller.
Bryce Salvador - Devil from February 8, 2008 through current; Captain for 2013 season.
Bryce Salvador became a Devil when Lou traded Cam Janssen to St. Louis. Yes, the trade was Janssen straight up for Salvador. Trust in Lou. Anyway, Salvador was a defensive defenseman who has a bit of a temper and can play 18-20 minutes per night. He was a physical player, sometimes to a fault. Salvador wasn't brought in for his offense, although he set a career season high with 16 points (3 G, 13 A) in 2008-09. Salvador didn't play at all in the 2010-11 season due to the effects of a cochlear concussion. He returned to the ice in September, played in all 82 games of the 2011-12 season, and became a solid part of the defense. He had a strangely productive playoffs with 14 points (4 G, 10 A) in 23 games, which surely helped him get a new three-year deal with the Devils last summer. Salvador has been named captain two days prior to the 2013 season opener at the Islanders.
Interestingly, all of the nine captains named were significant contributors to the team in terms of points at the time they were named captain. While Lever, Bridgman, and Langenbrunner were closer to being secondary scorers than top line players, they still put up points before and while they had the "C." Those three also declined in production after they were captains primarily because they were getting older and near the end of their careers. Driver, Stevens, and Niedermayer were no strangers to the boxscore in their time with a "C" on their jersey. Stevens became a rock-solid defensive defenseman but he wasn't that way in his first three to four years as captain. Muller and Parise were top-line, offensive leaders of the team as captains. Salvador is the lone exception as a captain who is strictly a defensive defenseman.
Also, almost all of these players were named captains when they were in that age 27-30 range. Almost all were players who had significant experience in the league. Surely, that had to play some role Muller was an exception for being so young. Salvador is now an exception for being so old. The last captain to be over the age of 35 was Stevens and he held it for many years beforehand. Salvador can claim to be the oldest Devil to be named team captain.
Moreover, five of the previous nine team captains in New Jersey Devils history didn't last for more than two seasons. Niedermayer only filled in for Stevens in the 2004 portion of the 2003-04 season. Driver, Elias, and Parise all had the "C" for exactly one season. Don Lever had his captaincy removed during the 1983-84 season. It's not that uncommon for this organization for a player to be the captain for a relatively short amount of time. I can understand wanting a longer reign, since Stevens' role was practically an era for the team. Yet, the team kept on with short or relatively long captaincies. If Salvador only has the "C" for one or two seasons, it shouldn't be seen as uncommon.
Lastly, as I was putting together a quick profile on each captain, I've noticed that their production didn't necessarily drop too much when the player became a captain. In fact, Muller, Langenbrunner, Stevens, and Bridgman had their most productive seasons as Devils while captains. It's not right to describe Lever's 1982-83 season, Driver's 1991-92, or Parise's 2011-12 as disappointing from a production standpoint. They had good seasons. Niedermayer was an all-star during 2003-04. The only captain who really saw his production suffer as captain was Elias; and I would attribute that more to just bad fortune given how his shooting percentage suddenly dropped to the 7% range for two seasons. Even then, he was the team's leading scorer in 2006-07. If there's any "pressure" that comes with being a captain, I didn't really see it in the basic stats for any of these players. I would look for other factors - e.g. Lever being near the end of his career, Stevens getting older - as to why production dropped for some of these captains besides what letter they had on their jersey. This won't be a concern for Salvador since he brings no offense to the table. It's worth noting for if/when the Devils name a particular top-six forward as captain in the future.
I congratulate Salvador for being named team captain and I wish him and the Devils the best of luck for this season. We hope it'll be a successful season for all involved. Thank you for reading.