Blackhawks’ captaincy conundrum: Seth Jones, Connor Murphy or no one?

Jonathan Toews’ exit opens the Hawks’ captain position for the first time in 15 years. Jones and Murphy are respectable candidates, but it’s also possible the Hawks leave the position vacant — as many other teams are doing.

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Seth Jones (left) and Connor Murphy (right).

Seth Jones (left) and Connor Murphy (right) are the most realistic options to replace Jonathan Toews as Blackhawks captain.

Getty Images (left), AP (right)

For the first time since 2008, the Blackhawks have a vacant captaincy.

Jonathan Toews’ departure this summer not only turns the final page on the Hawks’ dynasty chapter but also raises a few new questions for the franchise. Will the Hawks name a captain for next season? And if so, who will it be?

The most realistic candidates on the roster are veteran defensemen Seth Jones and Connor Murphy, both of whom would be respectable choices but aren’t slam dunks.

Jones’ contract certainly provides the long-term stability and commitment to the team that modern NHL captains have become expected to have (more on that later).

He just began an extension that runs through 2030 with a full no-movement clause. Besides, his salary-cap hit of $9.5 million per year — while likely to become burdensome to the Hawks down the road — is so unappealing that it nixes any possibility of a trade.

His skill level and star power easily meet worthy captain criteria, as well. His 2023 All-Star selection (hollow as it might have been) was the fifth of his career. At 28, he already ranks 24th among active NHL defensemen in career points (374), and he tied for 11th among NHL defensemen in ice time per game this past season (24:27).

During exit interviews in April, he sounded open to the possibility of becoming captain — something that had been speculated long before Toews’ departure became official.

“That would be a huge honor,” Jones said. “[Considering] the captains for the Blackhawks in the past, it’s a category that’s obviously unbelievable to be in. If I’m lucky enough to be [chosen], that would be awesome.”

He added that filling Toews’ shoes would be understandably challenging and noted that — regardless of the captaincy decision — Toews’ exit will put more pressure on himself, Murphy, Jarred Tinordi and Tyler Johnson to “be more vocal” and “show the way.”

Jones isn’t a particularly vocal leader, however, and that could give the Hawks pause.

Toews wasn’t a chatty guy, either — especially later in his career — but he would absolutely say whatever needed to be said when it needed to be said. Jones will need to demonstrate he can do the same. Luke Richardson this season and Derek King last season, as coaches, pushed Jones to speak up more often.

“When a guy doesn’t speak a lot, when he does speak, people listen,” Richardson said about Jones in January. “Just a subtle comment here or there . . . to bring guys together on the same page is very helpful.

“In the dressing room, he’s inching his way to be a quiet leader. But when you say something, it means something a little more when everybody knows you’re quiet. And he’s maybe [more of] a lead-by-example guy.”

There’s also the issue that many Hawks fans resent Jones. Most of the reasons why — namely his bloated contract and his association with ex-general manager Stan Bowman’s disastrous 2021 offseason — are out of his control, but his selection as captain wouldn’t be received well by a sizable segment of the fan base.

Murphy, on the other hand, would be a much more popular selection among fans. And there are plenty of other reasons, too, why Murphy would be a good pick.

He’s the longest-tenured player left on the team, having just finished his sixth season. He has decent contract stability: three years left at a $4.4 million cap hit with a modified no-trade clause.

And he undoubtedly has the necessary leadership skills. In recent years, he and Toews became the players who volunteered to talk to reporters on behalf of the team after the ugliest losses. He’s active in the community and outspoken about social issues. His combination of honesty, directness, humility and kindness makes him extremely well-liked around the organization.

But he isn’t anything close to an on-ice star; he’s just a reliable, 30-year-old, second-pair defensive defenseman. And then there’s the issue of willingness. It may well have been his humility shining through, but he downplayed the possibility of becoming captain during his exit interview.

“No, I haven’t thought about it,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if that would be right after [Toews]. I don’t know if anyone could live up to that. I don’t know if that would be something that would even happen, honestly.”

And that leads to the third possibility: The Hawks could elect to not name a captain at all, at least for 2023-24.

That’s actually a rather in-vogue option. Eight teams — the Ducks, Coyotes, Flames, Flyers, Kraken, Blues, Jets and Canucks — don’t have a captain. Six of them entered the season without one. The Coyotes and Flames have gone consecutive seasons without one.

That reflects a changed perception of the captain position — from a yearly title given to any roster’s leader, to a longer-term title given only to a ‘‘face of the franchise’’-type player. For rebuilding franchises, such a face is often impossible to determine.

For contrast, just look at the Hawks’ captaincy history before Toews: They had five in an eight-year span. None of Doug Gilmour, Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov, Adrian Aucoin and Martin Lapointe served more than two years in the role. That frequency of captain rotation never happens in the NHL anymore.

So while the Hawks await the arrival and maturation of their next core, it’s conceivable they could go captain-less for a year or two, instead simply giving Jones, Murphy and a couple of other veterans alternate-captain titles.

They’ll have the duration of the offseason to decide.

Lottery approaching

The Hawks will learn during the NHL Draft lottery Monday at 7 p.m. if they will land a generational prospect during this year’s draft.

They have an 11.5% chance of receiving the No. 1 pick (and presumably Connor Bedard), an 11.2% chance of receiving No. 2 (and presumably Adam Fantilli), a 7.8% chance of retaining No. 3, a 39.7% chance of falling to No. 4 and a 29.8% chance of falling to No. 5.

This and that

The Lightning’s first-round loss to the Maple Leafs means their first-round pick will be No. 19 or No. 20. The Hawks will receive that pick (as well as the Lightning’s top 2024 pick) as a result of the Brandon Hagel trade, giving them two selections in the top 20.

  • The Rangers’ first-round loss to the Devils means the Hawks will receive the Rangers’ second-round pick this year. Had the Rangers advanced to the conference finals, the Hawks would have instead received their first-round pick in 2024 or 2025.
  • That loss also marked a disappointingly abrupt end to Patrick Kane’s Rangers tenure. He finished with six goals and 12 assists in 26 games. The Rangers likely won’t be able to re-sign him as a free agent this summer.
  • Rockford, after beating Iowa in the AHL play-in round, was swept by Texas in a best-of-five first-round series, ending its season in underwhelming fashion.

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