When The Going Gets Tough, Jacob Trouba Gets Nasty
9:12 AM EST on December 6, 2022
The meaning of captaincy, and the way that a player holding the title can define a whole era of a franchise, is a power unique to hockey. Soccer's armband is mutable, subject to which players are in the game at a given time. Football has several captain's Cs on their jerseys but no matter who's wearing them, the quarterback is almost always the face of the franchise. Basketball is run by the stars. Baseball has captains sometimes but no real entrenched tradition of it. Only in hockey, among the major North American sports, is a player so significantly and visibly elevated to a long-lasting role of leadership, and is then expected to re-earn it every night.
I grew up with Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom wearing the local C, so my ideal version of a captain is something almost regal—a status conferred on those whose abilities are so clearly superior that it elevates them above the uglier aspects of the game. Sidney Crosby fits that role, as would someone like Mats Sundin. But a captain can also be a pugnacious predator who pisses his opponents off as he sets an example with his physicality, like Ryan Getzlaf or Zdeno Chara. A certain brand of old-school hockey fan might even prefer that. And it's what the New York Rangers got when defenseman Jacob Trouba received the captaincy this offseason, filling a vacancy that had lasted since Ryan McDonagh was traded in 2018.
There's no way to describe Trouba other than as a blunt instrument. First with Winnipeg and now in his four seasons with New York, the 28-year-old has been an inconsistent offensive presence but makes himself thoroughly known when his team doesn't have the puck, blocking shots and delivering crushing checks. He is not a tactician who can make subtle tweaks and improvements to the Rube Goldberg machine that is an NHL game; he's a rhino who will wildly scatter your silly levers and wheels and call that a job well done.
With the Rangers making a deep playoff run for the first time in a little while last summer, Trouba's head-turning, line-blurring hits reaped the ire of his opponents while providing a rallying point for his teammates. And as the blueshirts have felt their way through a fairly underwhelming start to a season with a lot of expectations, their captain is doubling down on the rugged actions that have previously given his guys momentum. The sweatiest, nastiest, and most confrontational aspects of his play have been on full display in the Rangers' games of late, and Trouba's found himself nose-to-nose with the other team's best players in search of a spark.
The trouble began in the second game of a home-and-home with the Ottawa Senators on Friday night. With both teams looking a little listless in the middle of the second period, Trouba and young Sens captain Brady Tkachuk seemingly decided telepathically to drop the gloves at center ice. Neither leader showed any compunction about whaling on the other, and the two did so energetically until they fell together in what I would call a draw.
The Rangers would go on to lose that game in overtime to drop to 11-9-5, and perhaps as a result, Trouba turned up the intensity even more the next night against Chicago. Not that the Blackhawks weren't looking for trouble, too. As payback for an incident last year when he was injured by one of Trouba's signature "it doesn't feel legal but it might be" hits, Chicago forward Jujhar Khaira fought Trouba in a grueling exchange that left both men gassed. But New York's captain didn't let that settle things up and move on. Later in the second, with his team losing 3-0, Trouba unleashed himself on Andreas Athanasiou as he exited his own zone, and as a result got tied up with another captain in Jonathan Toews.
As Trouba left the ice for the remainder of the period, he seemed to indicate to his charges that he hoped his own passion would inspire their own. New York did get a goal back on the ensuing power play but still lost, 5-2.
Though he was far less demonstrative in the aftermath, Trouba still brought a more understated level of psycho energy to the locker room.
Monday night's Rangers clash with the Blues with a bit calmer for Trouba, as he took only two minutes of penalties instead of seven or 12. But it still carried more signs that there will be no peace while he is on the ice. Possibly as a continuation of some bad feelings engendered by another hard knock delivered to St. Louis's Jordan Kyrou last year (I wonder if he even keeps track of all the guys who want to scrap, or if he just lets them do the work of grudge-holding), Trouba and Blues sharpshooter Vladimir Tarasenko picked up matching roughing penalties with a confrontation in the second.
Tarasenko's not a captain, but he's a star—and a player who's usually not too keen on putting himself in the penalty box. That he can't stand Trouba and won't wait for an enforcer shows how much the league hates his guts.
The Rangers did win this one, but it's hard to say with any certainty how they feel about all this. Opponents haven't been shy, though. Athanasiou, whose one-dimensional, speed-based offense actually makes him a very good foil for Trouba, didn't mince words in the Chicago postgame, calling out the Ranger for his recklessness, his artlessness, and his hefty contract.
“That guy is known for hitting high, not really worrying about the puck out there and almost trying to hurt people,” he said. “That’s his game; that’s what he does. He’s an $8 million man with zero goals, so he has to figure out how to do something when making that much. If you can’t help the team, I guess you try to hurt guys on the other team.”
Trouba is in fact signed for another three seasons after this one (with no-trade clauses), so he will stay New York's captain barring a monumental meltdown and subsequent coup. Whether or not that's the best thing for the Rangers, I don't know. With multiple high draft picks, proven top-notch forwards, and a young Norris winner in Adam Fox, this is a skilled team that really should have the tools to be taking it to the opposition nightly. Instead, though, they remain far too reliant on Igor Shesterkin to be omnipotent in goal, and because he thus far hasn't been, they sit outside the playoff picture and might be fighting for their lives through the winter.
The solution their captain seems to have drawn up is to try to recapture the glories of his postseason, where his teammates clearly loved watching him role play as a trash compactor. The on-ice results this year have been more mixed, however, and when you're not winning, this tough-guy routine can start to get pretty stale. One thing the Rangers can't do, though, is act surprised. This is who Trouba's always been, and for better or worse, this is who the Rangers have picked to lead them.
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