Anybody who follows sports somewhat closely knows that there are some players who receive a lot of praise because they possess certain qualities that others do not. Some of those qualities are concrete while others are more intangible. One intangible that’s thrown around regularly is having a leadership presence and showing the ability to be a mentor for the younger players. In baseball, most teams want to have somewhat of an accomplished veteran in their pitching staff to be a mentor. It’s similar to how a lot of football teams look to sign a veteran quarterback to be a back-up and provide some guidance for their young signal-caller.
NHL teams follow a similar trend as “veteran leadership” is something that’s considered an invaluable asset that all teams need to have to succeed. Most fans will often point to past championship teams and how they may have had a few players that had “been there before” and could pass on their knowledge and leadership to some of the younger stars. Names like John Madden, Craig Adams, Mark Recchi, Bill Guerin and Kris Draper are often pointed to as guys who are important for locker room presence and can help teams go further in the playoffs. The other thing that most of these players have in common is that they were either past their prime or bottom-sixers who were relied on more for defense.
All of those players performed well in their roles but I always got the idea that these types were overrated by the media. The reason why I say this is because they all played very replaceable roles and the one thing that put them “above” the rest is their supposed leadership qualities. Fans, media pundits and even general managers are generally attracted to the so called “grit” players who “do the little things to win games” and provide a good presence in the locker room as well. There’s nothing wrong with this since having players with guidance qualities is a good thing and there have been players were able to produce at high levels well into the 30’s and early 40’s, but I, personally would not sign a player only because of his supposed leadership skills.
This isn’t to say that having a player who can mentor his teammates and be a good locker room guy isn’t important, it’s just that leadership is a quality that seems to follow results rather than drive them. Follow any NHL team that has a few players over 30 throughout the year and you will probably notice that they go endure good and bad stretches in a season. Whenever said team is struggling, a lot of media members will point out that the “leaders on the team need to step up and get them through this.” On the other hand, if they are winning or go deep in the playoffs, most will credit the team’s “veteran leadership” is what helped pave the way for their success.
While that might be true, I can’t help but feel like leadership is one of the most elusive concepts to grasp because it changes so much over the course of the season. Take Chris Pronger of the Flyers for example, he is often cited as one of the leaders of the Flyers and was named captain last season. There were a lot of people who credited him as a reason why the Flyers went on their big playoff run in 2010 but when they were struggling earlier in the season, one of the narratives was that he was being too hard on the younger players and causing a disturbance in the locker room.
This narrative also occurred with the Flyers previous captain, Mike Richards. He received some of the blame for the Flyers post-season struggles because he was apparently a bad captain and displayed poor leadership qualities. After the Flyers were eliminated by the Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, numerous articles showed up about how Richards should have been stripped of his captaincy because he was quiet with the media and didn't perform in the playoffs. Fast forward to a year later and he is helping the Los Angeles Kings win a Stanley Cup Final. Now you’re seeing articles praising how he is part of the leadership corps of the Kings and the way he sets examples for his teammates.
Ruslan Fedotenko, also now of the Philadelphia Flyers, comes to mind with this topic. He was a big part in the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins’ respective Stanley Cup runs and is considered a “clutch performer with big game experience.” Well, that’s what is said of him when a contending team signs him or he has a hot streak in the post-season. He was 30 during the Penguins Stanley Cup championship year and contributed well with seven goals and 14 points in 24 games. People talked about how good of a big game player he is and the experience he brings to the table, but that talk vanished a year later when he didn’t produce much and was a healthy scratch in seven playoff games.
“Experience” and “grit” is one of the reasons why the Flyers decided to bring in Fedotenko and while he is somewhat of a useful player, his performance on ice isn’t much more than that of a third or fourth liner. His reputation as a “good locker room guy” is apparently what makes him a more attractive option than other players. It’s similar to why guys like Mike Rupp, Brandon Prust, Ethan Moreau and others have received a lot of praise from both fans and media guys.
The issue I take here is that from a fan and sometimes the media’s perspective, it is really hard to tell who is and isn’t a good leader. We are not in the locker room all the time so we don’t know what goes on in there and who is the most vocal among the team. For all we know he could just sit by himself and not talk to his teammates. There could also be a player who is quiet around the media but a vocal leader when the cameras are turned off. In the end, we don’t know and we can’t assume that a player is a good leader just because he has been around for awhile, just like we can’t assume that a player who hasn’t won a championship is a “bad leader.”
So when it comes time to acquire players, adding a guy with leadership qualities would be a good addition but it’s not something I would overpay for and I certainly won’t sign a replacement level player who is touted as a “good locker room guy.” It’s just hard to determine which players are good leaders and how much they can really contribute on the ice.