"You can't win with Jason Spezza
as your captain."
I have heard that phrase uttered countless times over the past few months, as the Ottawa Senators' season has slipped away. In his first season as captain, Spezza's club has been a major disappointment. The Senators fell well short of expectations and predictably, Spezza is taking the lion's share of the blame from his harshest critics.
I have always said that the Spezza debate in this town is like Coke versus Pepsi. If you are a Coke drinker, it's very hard to convince you that Pepsi is superior. The same goes for Spezza - those people who hate him can't be convinced otherwise. It's a black-and-white argument and it's virtually impossible to sway someone from one side to the other.
Anybody who has read or listened to me over the years knows that I fall into the camp of people who believe the Senators are a better team with Spezza down the middle.
But in today's blog, I am not trying to convince anybody about Jason's ability as a player. You can judge that for yourself. What I do want to bring up is the idea that a captain is the person who sets the tone for how his team plays.
The critics of Spezza will argue that because he has a penchant for turning over the puck and does not play as well defensively as some other players, he causes his entire team to play with a loosey-goosey mentality. If the guy wearing the "C" is taking risks with the puck, that is setting the tone for the 17 other skaters.
Those people say that if Spezza was a real leader, he would play the game the right way in all three zones. He would be a rugged leader, who was more physical. He would be someone like Andrew Ladd
of the Winnipeg Jets.
If you were to write down all the characteristics you would want in a captain for a Canadian team, Ladd would meet all the criteria.
• He is from Maple Ridge, B.C.
• He plays the game the right way
• He has Stanley Cup rings with two different teams
And yet, the Winnipeg Jets are a team that is a mess defensively. They have given up 234 goals – second-worst in the Western Conference.
Their captain is there every night supposedly playing the game "the right way". His teammates see how he conducts himself on and off the ice. So why are they so bad defensively?
It's because the captain can only do so much. And many times, we overrate the role of a captain on a hockey team. We assign certain characteristics to people and we have a hard time deviating from our original stance. In our minds, Ladd is a great captain – so the problem is with his Winnipeg teammates.
But if Ladd escapes the criticism in Winnipeg for failing to get the Jets to play a more structured game, why does Spezza take the heat in Ottawa for the exact same thing?
The tricky thing for Spezza is that he is also trying to fill the skates of the previous captain Daniel Alfredsson
, who had a mythical status in this town.
But before Alfredsson had his breakthrough moment as captain in 2007 in leading the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final, he had just as many detractors in Ottawa as Spezza does now. There was a prevailing sentiment that "you will never win with Daniel Alfredsson
as your captain." Those echoes reached a crescendo when Jason Pominville
walked around him for the series-ending goal against the Buffalo Sabres in the 2006 playoffs.
However, after Alfredsson won over his critics in 2007, he was good for life in Ottawa and was never blamed for any of the problems.
When it comes to the team that fell off a cliff in 2007-08 with one of the great collapses in NHL history?
"Don't blame Alfredsson, that was all Ray Emery
How about the team that missed the playoffs in two of the next three years?
"Let's blame Hartsburg and Cory Clouston. Alfie is a great leader."
When the Senators made the playoffs in 2011-12, they did so with the worst goals-against average of any of the 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs. They were kind of a mess defensively that year, but did anybody blame Alfredsson?
Of course not.
Because they had made up their minds that he was not the problem. Being the captain is all about perception. Alfredsson was always a good leader in Ottawa. He didn't radically change his approach in 2007 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final. Things just finally worked out in his favour and as a result, all of the questions surrounding his leadership vanished overnight.
Spezza probably needs time to grow into the captaincy in this town, so he can experience his own defining moment as the leader of this hockey team.
Whether he gets that opportunity or not is an entirely different question.