One day after a public tongue-lashing from his head coach and a post-game meeting with the general manager, Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza was adamant that his teammates are all on the same page as their frustrated management group.
Following a lopsided 5-2 loss against the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night, Paul MacLean told reporters that "there's a lack of focus, there's a lack of leadership and there's a lack of preparation" with his struggling team. That came on the heels of Bryan Murray taking the unusual step of going into the locker room at the Prudential Center and addressing the players himself.
"I think he's been disappointed all along. I think he's been disappointed with the group right from the onset of the season. I think it was just him letting us know that it's not acceptable how we're playing," Spezza said of Murray's meeting with the players. "There's no ultimatums and there's no threats, but there is a definite understanding that if we don't start playing better, it could be you the one being out the door. It could be any one of us and when you don't win, that's what happens. We put ourselves in this situation and we're the only ones who can get ourselves out of it. We understand that's part of the game."
MacLean's pointed criticism of the leadership core had many wondering if there was a disconnect between the head coach and the captain. But heading into Thursday's game against the Florida Panthers, Spezza wanted to make it blatantly clear that he had no issues with MacLean.
"No - our coaches are good coaches and we've always liked playing for them. I'm sure they're getting frustrated by us and that may lead to some of the frustration and some of their remarks," Spezza explained. "But we believe in what they're preaching to us and Mac is a good hockey man and he understands. We're probably more frustrated than him as players out there playing. But he goes home and it's frustrating for him to figure out why he can't get us to go."
Spezza has become accustomed to being a lightning rod for criticism in this market, but this is his first season as captain of the hockey club. He insists he is not uncomfortable being the scapegoat on many nights this season.
"Whenever you're not winning, you start looking at the top down. As being the captain, it gets reflected on me first and I have to find a way to get our group more consistent and I have to find a way to get my own game consistent," said Spezza. "When things go wrong you look at the top down. And it's always been that way in sports."
When asked about his attack on the leadership group from the previous night, MacLean made sure to include himself in the group of people who need to improve.
"For me, leadership is everyone. It's myself, it's my coaching staff, my training staff and it's every player in the room. Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil are the representatives of the leadership of our team, but they're not the only guys," MacLean said on Thursday. "Everyone is accountable and everyone has to provide leadership on a daily basis and we haven't done that as a group. They're representatives of it, so they do most of the talking about it, but it's not just them. Yes, they need to be better, but every one of us has to better."
Spezza has yet to record a goal this month, a drought that has now extended to 12 games. He has been a consistent offensive producer during his career, but has watched his numbers decline so far this season with 28 points in 35 games. The 30-year-old says he is making some adjustments to his game to try and be more of a two-way player, which could explain the decline in his offensive statistics.
"I'm trying to change my game. I'm trying to play in more straight lines, I'm trying to drive the net more and doing some things that take away from my offense a little bit," said Spezza. "We feel that in the long run it's the best way to play and it's the best way to help the team. The more comfortable I get playing that way, the better our team will be."
For his part, MacLean acknowledges his captain's adjustments, but still expects more.
"For Jason, we've asked him to make changes to his game to a more complete game and a more 200-foot game," said MacLean. "And when you go through changes to your game, the offensive side of it a lot of the time suffers. And I think he's starting to get through that. He created some opportunities last night and some previous games. We're seeing an improvement in it, but we'd like to see it speed up a little more than it has. But it's a process that takes time and we have to be willing to be patient with it. But at the same time, we need him to be better – especially in the power play situations."