How does one define leadership? How does one decide who is a good leader based on the brief moments that are seen by the public? It is nearly impossible. Demeanour with the media means little, as a shy player may still be an effective presence when the media is not around. Leadership is rarely shown through only words; instead quiet actions are more impactful than grand gestures. It is also wrong to expect every player to develop into a leader. Some will, some won't, and the important part is to foster leadership (whatever shape it takes) in the players that show a desire to influence.
When a player first makes the NHL, there should be no expectation for him to lead. Leaders should be reaching out to teammates to make sure they are settling in well and are not in need of assistance. A good one will also be able to tell a player what they need to hear, even if it is a difficult message. There will be no throwing a teammate under the bus, even if they are at fault. Carey Price did this last year with Jarred Tinordi, and Tinordi responded in kind facing the media the same night after enjoying a few extra moments to collect himself. Sometimes, the little things matter.
Leadership does not make a bad player good or a good player bad. A leader does not become a good one simply because he plays on a winning team, and vice versa. Sometimes a team can lose its way with a solid leader, and other times a team can win without one. It takes more than one ingredient to win or lose.
Just because a team cannot or does not win does not mean the fault is on its leadership. There are many reasons that a team can be bad, and it's rarely that "this is a bad bunch of guys who want to kill each other". Instead, faults can more often be traced back to player (mis)management and coaching strategy. If a team is lacking several key pieces to be successful, or has too many bad players, the team will simply lose. The losses are a symptom of a failure of leadership though. This failure is in the boardroom rather than in the locker room.
The lack of finger-pointing at leadership beyond the players is an interesting phenomenon in hockey. Players can only control so much, and what they can't control gets blamed on them anyways. Earlier this year after the Montreal Canadiens first blow-out loss, the narrative shifted to how it was the first real test for the new leadership group of the Montreal Canadiens. It was time to show Marc Bergevin that he was right to move on from former captain Brian Gionta and media-favourite Josh Gorges. Except, it was not and is not all on the players when a team loses, or goes on a losing streak. The players can only control their showing up and playing the system. The system and the tactics a team uses are determined by the coaching staff; same goes for player deployment. It should be argued that leadership for players is important when it comes to day-to-day things, like integrating new call-ups to the team or ensuring a new player is included in team activities. It is up to the coach to make sure the team is prepared to play every game and it is up to the general manager to ensure that the best possible roster is available every game, and the team knows what is expected of them.
Leadership has many layers. A team is only as good as its worst component. If the general manager is not providing an optimal roster; the coach fails. If a coach is not deploying an optimal system; the players fail. In the end, the first two are usually tied, and it falls onto the players to explain their failings. Except, the players are rarely able to tell anyone what is wrong, just that something is wrong and they have to fix it.
Earlier this year Lars Eller boldly went where few players have gone before and explained that the gap between forwards and defenders was too big when exiting the zone, leading to turnovers. This was about a year after Max Pacioretty explained that praising teams for blocking a lot of shots is not good because to block a shot the other team has to take a shot attempt, meaning that the Montreal Canadiens did not have the puck. Both players were able to analyze a fault in the system the Montreal Canadiens were playing and that's where the losses were coming from. This is rare though, and for good reason: It is seen as bad to speak out against the coach. It is really a catch-22. Say something insightful, but not too insightful because it could reveal too much.
This is where the media does an about face. Where last year there were questions about Pacioretty's desire to remain with the Montreal Canadiens because of Michel Therrien and Pacioretty's own contract, there is now praise for him as a leader. Because he talks to the media more and makes eye contact. Talking to the media does not mean that someone is a good leader; it means that someone is willing to bite the bullet for his teammates and face a gauntlet everyday. There are plenty of people who simply do not like talking to the media. That does not make the player a bad leader; it makes them someone who does not like dealing with the media.
There is no sound way to measure leadership. Mannerisms can change with a player as they mature. To lead, the player must be placed in an environment that teaches and encourages them to be a leader. A young player may have experienced that at home, at school, or in junior/NCAA before reaching the NHL. Some players simply develop into leaders as they experience the NHL, and others never become leaders. There is no one way to measure leadership. There is no one right way to lead. There is no rule that everyone who enters a NHL dressing room to play for a team has to lead. Not everyone can or should lead. Some players simply want to follow. It is up to the real leaders to let that happen.
No person is born a perfect leader and not all players evolve that way. A good leader on one team may not be a good one on another team. No single leader can change a team; even the most dominant personality cannot fix a team with a broken system and the weakest personality cannot ruin a team playing a dominant system. Leadership is worth something, but not nearly as much as systems and good players are.