Nick Haydon The Hockey Writers
Gabriel Landeskog: The NHL’s Most Underrated Leader
By almost every metric, Gabriel Landeskog is an elite and successful hockey player. Drafted second overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2011, he has since posted 460 points in 633 games. He won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie in 2012. On the international stage, he has won two gold medals at the World Championships (2013, 2017) and a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics. At just 27, he has accomplished more than most.
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However, Landeskog boasts another layer to his game, a quieter, less flashy facet that separates him from other players: his leadership and maturity. At 16, he debuted as the youngest player in franchise history for Djurgarden in the Swedish Hockey League, and, ever since, he has surpassed his on-ice talent with off-ice character. He has captained the Colorado Avalanche for eight seasons, leading the franchise’s turnaround from the league’s worst to one of the league’s best. A unique blend of skill and poise, Landeskog quietly leads without garnering the attention that a player and leader of his caliber deserves.
Hockey in Sweden
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Landeskog’s father Tony played in the Swedish Hockey League, the highest league in the country. The sport is in Gabriel’s blood, and he proved it at a young age. His dad bought him a pair of skates when he was four years old, and he remembers skating on a homemade rink in his backyard. About 10 years later, at 15, he debuted for Djurgarden U18, the junior affiliate for Djurgarden of the Swedish Hockey League. From 2007 to 2009, he played in 31 games and totaled 34 points – an impressive showing for a player two or three years younger than his teammates and opponents.
During his final year in Sweden, he debuted for the professional Djurgarden team, becoming the youngest to play for the organization in franchise history at 16. While he only played three games, he did post one assist and demonstrate his on- and off-ice maturity. After that season, he packed his bags and headed to North America to start his junior hockey career.
North American Hockey
Landeskog made a name for himself during his time in Sweden, and in 2009, the Plymouth Whalers selected him third overall in the Canadian Hockey League import draft. However, he had expected to be drafted by the Kitchener Rangers and subsequently refused to report to the Whalers. Fortunately, the two teams hammered out a trade so he could join the Rangers for the 2009-10 season.
In his first season, Landeskog posted 24 goals and 22 assists in 61 games, third among Ontario Hockey League rookies. More impressive than his offensive production was his maturity and leadership. In 2010, the Rangers named him captain, making him the first European captain in team history. Ryan Dixon at The Hockey News quoted then-general manager Steve Spott on Landeskog: “You don’t become the Kitchener Rangers’ captain, especially a Swedish-born player, without having character and grit and the intangibles to handle the media in this city. For us, this is the Green Bay Packers of junior hockey. It’s front page every day.”
That is high praise, and by now, you may be noticing a pattern. As the youngest player in Djurgarden’s history and the first European-born captain for the Rangers, Landeskog warranted recognition for his leadership and maturity. But, let us not forget his offensive production. In two seasons with the Rangers, he posted 112 points (60 goals, 52 assists) in 114 games. He elevated his play during the postseason, notching 33 points in 27 games. His combination of raw talent and outstanding character garnered NHL attention, and heading into the 2011 draft, he ranked among the top three in prospects.
Joining the Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche bought into the (justified) hype surrounding Landeskog and drafted him second overall in 2011. Along with Daniel Sedin and Victor Hedman, Landeskog became the third Swedish player ever drafted second overall, again etching his name in the record books. The Avalanche, however, were not the only team impressed with him. In a recent Spittin’ Chiclets interview, Brian Burke, then-Maple Leafs general manager, indicated how Landeskog left an impression during his draft interview that Burke remembers to this day.
Ryan Whitney (co-host of Spittin’ Chiclets): Any interviews really stick out to you? Any other ones where guys really surprised you in a good way?
Brian Burke: Gabriel Landeskog.
Whitney: That’s no surprise.
Burke: (Landeskog) finished the interview, and we wanted to ask him to sit down, help us talk to the other kids. I think he will be a general manager in the league. I really respect him.
Burke’s insight represents the attitudes of many across the NHL. Landeskog’s maturity and talent form a rare duo that propelled him to immediate success. In his first season, he scored 22 goals and 30 assists in 82 games and captured the Calder Trophy in 2012, beating Adam Henrique and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Between the point totals and the hardware, his rookie season was a success, but the on-ice accolades were only the beginning of a long, full NHL career.
Oh Captain, My Captain
Landeskog’s debut season showcased his talent and maturity, and the Avalanche’s front office had seen enough to determine that the Swedish phenom should lead the organization. On Sept. 14, 2012, the Avalanche announced that Lankdeskog would serve as the new captain, replacing veteran Milan Hejduk. Landeskog became, at the time, the youngest captain in NHL history; he was 19 years, 286 days old.
In case you have lost track, here is a list of Landeskog’s accomplishments before he was 20.
- Youngest captain in NHL history
- Youngest player in Djurgarden’s history
- First European captain in Kitchener Ranger’s history
- 2012 Calder Trophy Winner
- Second overall draft selection in 2011
Even more astonishing, every feat except No. 1 Landeskog accomplished before the Avalanche named him captain. It is no wonder the team selected him – he had a resume of history-defining moments that prepared him to lead.
Team Improvement and Personal Responsibility
It has been eight seasons with Landeskog leading the Avalanche. During his time at the head of the ship, he has certainly needed to navigate choppy waters. From 2012 to 2017, the Avalanche only made the playoffs once. In fact, the team finished at the bottom of the NHL with a meager 48 points in 2016-17.
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Nevertheless, with Landeskog as captain, the Avalanche have emerged as one of the best, most electrifying teams in the NHL, having made the playoffs the past two seasons. Superstars like Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have helped, but not once during those difficult seasons was Landeskog’s leadership questioned. He has had the steadfast support of his team and organization, a testament to his rare character.
One moment perfectly captured Landeskog’s leadership qualities, reinforcing why everyone respects him as a leader. In the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche had the game-tying goal called back after Landeskog was deemed offside. He had gone to the bench for a change but remained on the ice, and his foot lingered in the offensive zone. To make this call sting even more, it was Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks. The call cost the Avalanche the opportunity to win the series and a bid to the Western Conference Final. Avalanche fans will remember this (still raw) memory well.
Whether you agree with the call or not, almost every hockey player and fan admired Landeskog’s reaction. He had every right to blame the referees or the league for missing a call (plenty of reporters did). But, when asked about the call in the postgame interview, Landeskog accepted responsibility and even sympathized with the referees.
“It’s a clumsy mistake. Get off the ice. I don’t envy [the referees’] position at all to have to make that call in a game seven like this. It’s a tough job, and it’s a tough call to have to make. [But] I’m going to blame for that [call] because I could have done a lot of things different, so, ultimately, my skates were the skates that were on the ice.”
This response separates Landeskog from other NHL leaders. In the heat of the moment, he bears responsibility for the mistake, even when no one would fault him for blaming anyone else.
A True Leader Through and Through
From his time in Sweden through juniors and now in the NHL, Gabriel Landeskog’s maturity and leadership have established him as a true leader. Unlike fellow captains Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Landeskog would not be considered “the best” Avalanche. Instead, his immensely talented teammates – MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Cale Makar – often steal the show.
Nevertheless, Landeskog leads with poise and confidence, elevating and complementing a deep Avalanche roster. His unique combination of skill and leadership are invaluable and make him one of the best, most underrated captains in the NHL.
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