After going through their first season without a captain in some time, the Ottawa Senators will likely adopt a similar leadership strategy on the ice next season. Ottawa used an alternate captain model that saw five different players wear a letter throughout the year. Seeing as more than half of those players are now former Senators and with no suitable captain to lead the way, it’s time for some new names to emerge and take the reigns in the leading leadership department.
The 2018-19 Alternates
Anticipating more changes in a season of uncertainty, the Senators left the captaincy vacant and opted to assemble a group of players to lead by committee. Throughout the 2018-19 season, the team named alternate captains: Mark Borowiecki, Matt Duchene, Zach Smith and Mark Stone. Once he returned from injury in early 2019, Jean-Gabriel Pageau was also named to the group. With Stone, Duchene and Smith no longer part of the organization, only Borowiecki and Pageau remain.
Philosophy Moving Forward
Since Daniel Alfredsson captained the team from 1999-2000 to 2012-13, the Senators have seen Jason Spezza, Dion Phaneuf and Erik Karlsson wear the “C.” With the potential roster turnover last season, it was justified for the Senators coaching staff to elect to go without a captain.
As the team prepares for the 2019-20 season, it is likely for the best to continue on without a captain. While Ottawa has elite young talents on the roster, naming one of them a captain could put unneeded pressure on their development. Of the veterans, none play a prominent enough role to seem like a suitable candidate to lead the pack.
Ottawa is not the only team without a captain. They are one of seven NHL teams without a captain joining Detroit, San Jose, Toronto, Vancouver, Vegas and the New York Rangers. In some cases,sharing the leadership load can be beneficial. In the case of the Senators, a system using alternate captains would unify their group, make players more accountable and would encompass their cultural foundation.
The Senators remain focused on graduating talent from their prospect pool and giving them prominent roles on the main roster while surrounding them with veteran players. In late June 2019, Pierre Dorion stated that the team “…is hoping to sign a veteran or two to help build culture,” (from: “Free Agency: The Ottawa Senators might be interested in adding a veteran defenceman” – Ottawa Citizen – 29/6/19).
Since then, Dorion signed Ron Hainsey through free agency and traded for Nikita Zaitsev and Tyler Ennis and acquired Artem Anisimov. Each player has a wealth of NHL experience, yet none of the recent additions seems an obvious fit as a formal leader. With the youth movement in full swing and likely more changes as the team formalizes the roster, a leadership committee combining youth along a veteran core would be a good recipe for the Senators.
The Next Generation
With Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk, the Senators already possess budding NHL stars. Both players are already on track to be difference makers for Ottawa and would make excellent alternates.
In Chabot, Ottawa has one of the premier offensive defensemen in the league. With the absence of Karlsson, expectations fell on Chabot last season to produce and be the next offensive superstar. He delivered, scoring 55 points. In just his second full NHL campaign, he was also named to the All-Star game. Aside from his terrific skill set, Chabot has been called upon as a leader in the past.
He was an assistant captain for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in 2017 when Canada won a silver medal and he also won tournament MVP honours. As the team culture in Ottawa continues to shape itself, incorporating a developing Chabot into the leadership fold would bode well for the core of the organization and be a positive recognition to Chabot’s contribution.
Tkachuk boasts the unique blend of power, skill and edge that the Senators have needed for some time. In his rookie season as a 19-year-old, he quickly proved that he could play in the NHL scoring 10 points in his first 10 games. What is more significant than his production, however, are his intangibles. His ability to engage the opposition physically has won the support of his teammates and his youthful enthusiasm for the game is infectious.
Tkachuk exudes agenuine passion for the game, something that a developing organization needs on the roller-coaster of ups and downs. He captained the United States at the World Junior Under-18 Championships in 2017 and won the gold medal. It is early in his career, but his personality and character alone could arguably put him as the front runner to a captaincy someday in Ottawa.
The Veteran Contingent
As much as there is a focus on the younger players on the roster, Ottawa has some long-time serving players that truly embody the culture and character makeup that Dorion and company desire in their players. Similar to last season, Borowiecki and Pageau seem likely candidates to serve as alternate assistants once again, while a new nominee may also be worth some consideration.
Since he began his NHL career, local product Borowiecki has been known as a hard-nosed defender willing to make any sacrifice. The 2008 Senators draftee is arguably the hardest working and toughest Senator on most nights and is prepared to stand up for his teammates and answer the call when needed, admirable qualities to say the least.
As with most players that play a physical brand of hockey, Borowiecki has been bothered by injuries over the last two seasons playing just over 50 games in each campaign and even recognized that his style of play would need to change in order for him to maintain his health long-term.
In an interview with Bruce Garrioch released by the Ottawa Sun in Mar. 2018, Borowiecki stated, “Given what I’ve been through this year, I think it’s important for me, where those are the ones (fights) where I’m just unfortunately going to have to let those slide.” (from: “Sens’ Borowiecki knows he has to pick his spots” – Ottawa Sun – 1/3/18).
Despite his reservations to fight, it is difficult to deny that his heart, desire and accountability are exactly what a team in transition needs in order to stay focused and disciplined. Borowiecki has only one year remaining on his contract and with a plethora of prospects eyeing a spot on defense, his tenure with the team could be in jeopardy for next season. Uncertainty or not, recognizing what he brings to the team is worthy as an alternate.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau has played for Ottawa since he began his career in 2012-13. He made his mark with the organization that same year when he rattled off a hat trick in Game 3 of the First Round against the Montreal Canadiens where the chant of ‘Pageau, Pageau, Pageau, Pageau!’ began. At that moment, Pageau instantly became part of legend and folklore in Ottawa.
He was part of the leadership group last season, despite only starting his season in Jan. 2019. After suffering an achilles injury in training camp in Sept. 2018, Pageau was expected to miss approximately 4-6 months.
To the surprise of many, he was able toreturn ahead of schedule showing tremendous work ethic and dedication. Pageau has shown to be a versatile player and has had chemistry with many combinations of linemates. He is a coaches’ dream and plays a strong defensive game while generating respectable offensive production. Similarly to Borowiecki, Pageau enters the 2019 season with one year remaining on his contract, however, his future with the team should not be a factor and he should be pencilled in as another alternate this season.
With the final alternate position, it may register some surprise, but it would be wise for the Senators to consider Bobby Ryan. Despite Ryan not living up to the offensive expectations and production of his days as an Anaheim Duck, hiswell-documented upbringing personifies his strength as a person and as a character individual. With the influx of rookies and younger players coming up through the system, the presence of Ryan and his maturity are invaluable.
In Feb. 2017, during a scoring slump, former coach Guy Boucher moved Ryan to the third line to challenge him in a new role. While some players may have interpreted the move as a demotion, Ryan took it in stride. “I think (Senators coach Guy Boucher) saw an opportunity to slide me into a role and see if I could handle it…I know there’s people who have their opinions on it, but if that’s what he wants me to do I’m going to do it.” (from “Ottawa Senators’ Bobby Ryan sees move to third line an opportunity,” Globe and Mail, 4/2/17).
With numerous players battling for roster spots this fall and looking for roles on the team, Ryan is a great example of being a team player.
Ryan has also suffered numerous hand injuries over the past few seasons and yet, he continues to serve as a model member of the team. Ryan currently sits at the top of Ottawa’s salary cap as the highest-paid player and is locked into a deal for the next three seasons. Seeing as his annual salary of $7.25 million would be difficult to move, the Senators may do well to show a vote of confidence in Ryan and encourage him by tacking on a new role in the leadership fold.
With DJ Smith and his new regime taking control of the team this fall, it is difficult to pinpoint who will formally lead Ottawa on the ice or what philosophy they will take. With an underlying focus on the ongoing development of their players and cultivating a strong team culture, the decision around the captaincy in Ottawa can be made in time.
Ottawa Senators writer for The Hockey Writers.
Scout/writer on the Nashville Predators at Dobber Prospects.
Ottawa native, hockey player, coach and referee.
Forever a fan of hockey with a keen interest in prospects and NHL rookies.