The Senators' Great Captain Debate

Since Erik Karlsson was traded to the San Jose Sharks after the 2017-18 season, the Ottawa Senators have operated without a designated captain. For four seasons, Karlsson was the unquestioned leader of the team and when he left, the Senators were clearly sending a signal to their fans that a rebuild was on the horizon.

Up to that point, the modern-day Senators had always had a C on someone’s jersey. To no one’s surprise, the team has not made the playoffs the past three years and that trend is not going to be broken this season either.


The real questions are, how long can/should they operate with that kind of model and who will the next captain be?


When the Toronto Maple Leafs tore it down, they operated without a captain for three seasons (2016-17, 2017-18 & 2018-19) before naming current captain, John Tavares, The Grand Poobah. Sens Nation would shudder to think that they would have adopted or mimicked an idea put forth by their arch nemesis. Any objective observer would admit the timing is awfully coincidental.


The whole no captain concept is not that unusual these days. As it stands today, four of the 31 teams in the NHL do not have one. The Senators, Red Wings, Devils and Rangers are all operating with alternate captains only. The common pattern here is that those four teams are nowhere near a playoff spot and are at varying stages of rebuild. Columbus, Tampa Bay and Toronto have all had stints of three years without assigning a captain’s role and both Chicago and Pittsburgh have gone as many as five seasons without. Until this season, the Vegas Golden Knights had never had a captain. Former Senator, Mark Stone, is the first captain in team history and this is their 4th season in the NHL.


Dealing with our first question of how long can/should the Senators operate without a captain? How important is a captain to being successful? That is an interesting debate in and of itself? The last and only team to win a Stanley Cup with no designated captain was the Boston Bruins in 1972. They have, in fact, done it twice (69-70 & 71-72). Not having a designated captain does not mean a that a team has no leadership. It simply means that a team draws upon many sources for its leadership.


Football teams typically have no designated captain but rather a captain of the offence, defense and specialty teams. Yet the Super Bowl and Grey Cup (save this past season) get awarded every year. Most NBA teams have no captains of record. They have leaders but not necessarily captains. Do Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson etc. need letters on their jerseys for anyone to know who the leaders of their teams are/were? When I played competitive hockey, there was always a captain and three alternates. I was fortunate enough to be an alternate for several of the teams I played for. When I played, the letters were the ones the referee would talk to either on behalf of the coach or to relay a message to the coach.


Is the fact that only two teams in history have won the Holy Grail of Hockey without a captain a relevant fact or would the same teams who won with captains have won regardless with three or four alternates? Is the need to have a captain perhaps conventional wisdom versus practical wisdom? More importantly, has a team ever won a Stanley Cup despite having a weak captain? I have reviewed the list of Stanley Cup winning captains and I have never met any of them.


However, the number of cups awarded in history versus the number of captains who have won it is substantially different. The latter is much smaller because the same names appear multiple times on the list and in some cases with different teams. Does a team need a captain for the sake of having one or do they need the right captain? I would suggest the latter. Can a team win the Stanley Cup without a designated captain? Clearly, yes, as it has been done before. Taking it one step further, can a team win with a weak leadership structure? I would suggest no.


The answer to the first question would be, in my opinion, that the Ottawa Senators can take the time necessary until the right captain emerges and then they can name him. Daniel Alfredsson served as captain for 13 seasons and there was no issue as to who the team leader was. After he left for Detroit, the Senators felt pressure to replace him with a captain right away and pinned the C on Jason Spezza. The team missed the playoffs and Spezza was traded the following summer.


This is not to condemn Spezza for that outcome but rather the Ottawa Senators. Clearly, they rushed that decision and Spezza was not the right fit for that role. The “right” captain can make all the difference in a team. The same can be said for the “wrong” captain. Let the Senators continue their audition until it becomes clear who the best fit is. Picking the “wrong” captain would be a worse outcome than waiting too long to pick the “right” one.


Now that we have addressed that issue, let us imagine who that next captain might be? If the “right” captain is critically important, then what makes a good captain and who are the potential candidates?


The league is almost entirely millennials (Generation Y) and post millennials (Generation Z). This is a critical demographic to understand as a coaching staff in terms of who to name as captain. The Senators should take care in choosing captains that can lead in that demographic.


In terms of pre-requisites, here is a list of boxes that our next C should check.


It is clear to me that when a team finds the “right” captain, they need to hang onto him. Whomever the next captain is, he should be on a long-term contract. For argument’s sake, more than 3 years would be the standard and he needs to be under contract for our projected window of opportunity. He needs to be committed to the team and the team to him. Continuity, in this role is as important as being good. Spezza, only had 1 year remaining on his contract when he was traded meaning he only had 2 years left when he assumed the role and he was set for unrestricted free agency. Perhaps the Senators presumed Spezza would re-sign with them. If things had gone well, perhaps he would have.


Things did not go well.


Ideally, he would have been a captain before with some success on his resume. It does not have to be NHL experience as a captain. Major junior, World Junior Championship, NCAA and AHL leadership experience is valid if it is successful. Coming directly from those environments to an NHL captaincy is not prudent. Even Sidney Crosby played 2 years in the league before becoming captain of the Penguins. My point is that past success as a leader is a good predictor of future success as a leader as long as it is fairly recent.


The next captain does not need to be the best player on the team. He should, however, be one of the best players. Good in the room only goes so far with millennials and post millennials. They like to be led by people who can walk the walk, so to speak. Most people would prefer that in any boss for any profession. In professional sports, this becomes that much more important. It is difficult to call people out if you cannot do the things you are asking others to do.


Not so long ago, a player whose reputation preceded him could get by on what he used to be able to do. That will not fly anymore. Randy Cunneyworth was a journeyman player at the end of his career when the Senators made the playoffs for the first time while he was captain. He was really good in the room and that was enough back then.


There are other no brainers such as being a good teammate and not upsetting the chemistry or being prone to selfish play on the ice. Of course, if that needs to be said then we have bigger problems. They must be able to speak English without a translator and French-speaking is a bonus but not a requirement per se.


Alexander Ovechkin became the first Russian-born captain to hoist the Stanley Cup. Zdeno Chara (Slovakia) and Nicklas Lidstrom (Sweden) have also captained teams to the Stanley Cup. This pretty much ends the debate on nationality being relevant. Pedigree can play a role as it is not unusual to see a father’s children follow his footsteps into the NHL. Again, this is relevant but not a requirement.


With these traits in mind, who are our options and how do they stack up?

Candidates (Left to right): Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Tim Stützle

The only player who is on a long-term contract, at the moment, is Thomas Chabot. He is clearly our best defenseman and player for the moment. He is an alternate captain now though it is his only season with a letter in the NHL. He was an alternate captain for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship in 2017 and won a silver medal. Oddly enough he never wore a letter for Saint John in the QMJHL. Perhaps this had something to do with him having started the 2016-17 season with Ottawa before being sent back to Saint John? His English is good enough and will only get better and his bilingualism is an asset. He can clearly walk the walk on the ice. Is he good in the room? That is the only thing I can’t speak to, though I have never heard otherwise. Is he a lock? Not necessarily, but he definitely merits being in the discussion.


I recall seeing Brady Tkachuk play against Canada on New Year’s Eve in 2017 in an outdoor game against Canada in the World Junior Championship. The Sens' season was free falling after coming back from Sweden. I knew the Senators had never had a player like that and I wished for us to continue to spiral in order to get him in the 2018 draft and, thanks to Montreal believing that Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a potential number one center, my wish was granted. I, and most Sens fans, have been bullish on him ever since and he has been everything we had hoped for.


He does not have the leadership experience that Chabot has as he was not a captain in his only trip to the WJHC and this is his 1st year with a letter in the NHL. He does bring an intangible in that his father, Keith, was a captain for several years with the Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes and as an alternate captain in St. Louis.


Pedigree does count for something in this decision. One could say that Brady and his brother, Matthew, have been groomed since the cradle for this ascension. He is not on a long-term contract as he is still in his entry level deal. However, I am sure Pierre Dorion will take care of that over the summer if not sooner. If Tkachuk is unwilling to do a long-term deal, in my mind, that would take him out of the discussion. If he tries to bridge his way to unrestricted free agency, that hardly meets the commitment criteria. If he does, he becomes a very viable candidate. There is some growing up to do. He isn’t ready yet but he seems to drag the Senators into games with his infectious desire to affect the outcome.


Tim Stutzle is not yet wearing a letter. He did, however, wear the C for Germany at the World Junior Hockey Championship which is something that he has done that Chabot and Tkachuk have not. The letter brought the best out of him as he dominated amongst his peer group and elevated Germany despite a rash of covid-19 infections that forced them to play with a depleted roster. Stutzle is the youngest of the three and, like Tkachuk, is not on a long-term contract. That will need to be resolved before the Senators think of giving him the C though I would be surprised if he is not wearing an A next season given that Erik Gudbranson is not likely to return. He checks most of the boxes, his English is good enough and he is a top flight player in the making.


If Stutzle and the Senators can agree on long-term deal coming out of ELC then he could easily merit consideration.


Without access to the dressing room, we don’t know what kind of teammates any of them are when the camera eye is not on them. Assuming there are no issues there, those would be the lead horses in the race.


Other up and coming players such as Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and even Jake Sanderson could all merit consideration in this discussion. They check fewer boxes at the moment. That said, we are not in any rush to make a decision and none of the players check all the boxes. It is worth noting that this article assumes that the players I have named would like to the captain.


More than anything, the captaincy makes a player the hood ornament on the team freight train. Fans, media, sponsors and teammates need to rally around this player and this player could be a key selling piece in getting Eugene Melnyk a new arena. Sidney Crosby was huge in that regard for the Penguins as was Connor McDavid in Edmonton.


When that fateful day comes, it will be apparent who the next captain will be. Great leaders are called into action. Let’s see who gets the call.


By Paddy Mack | Sens Nation Hockey