Jason Spezza has not yet shown that he can replace Daniel Alfredsson. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Maybe Dany Heatley was right.
It may be surprising for you to read that. It was certainly surprising to write it. But as we look at the Ottawa Senators this season, we can't help but wonder, "Where is the leadership?"
Head coach Cory Clouston is not to blame. His system works. We've seen it time and again. We saw it turn the team's mentality around at the end of the unsalvageable 2008-09 season. We saw it set a franchise-record winning streak last year and lead an underdog team back to the playoffs. It's a team-based system, which is what you need to play when you don't have a lot of offensive talent -- and that's part of Ottawa's plight.
But Clouston's system won't work when his team starts the game in the hole, which is common these days. There's no system that helps a team win when behind, except outworking the other guys by a wide margin. Considering the amount of times this year the team has been down in a game, it's fair to say that no team could produce the level of intensity needed to come back in all of them. As the fifth-oldest team in the NHL, it's even less fair to think these current Senators are capable of producing it on a regular basis.
Bryan Murray deserves some of the blame. After all, he's the one who assembled this team. He's the one who added veteran players and then let them walk in the offseason. He's the one who continues to sign skill players on the wrong side of 35. It's hard to ask a chef to make you fillet mignon when you give him aged chuck steak.
The truth, though, is that the major faults of this team lie directly in the locker room.
Senators fans remember well the halcyon days of the 100-point teams, where the goals came easily and the players flew across the ice. There was no reason to panic when those teams were losing in a game -- you were sure they were going to come back.
And more often than not, they did.
Those were the days when Daniel Alfredsson would calmly strip the puck, make a pretty pass or bury a shorthanded goal, and the team would rally behind him. It's no coincidence that it was Alfredsson who scored the goal that sent the modern day Senators to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Who else was going to do it? Who else even could? Every time the team needed a boost, Alfredsson was the player the team looked to for it. He was the player everyone rallied around. Even if he took on that burden too often and tried to do too much himself, Alfredsson gave it his all, and everyone fell in line behind him. Those were the days when everyone knew who we could count on.
Those days are gone.
Daniel Alfredsson is 38, and though his willingness to be the player to carry the team remains undiminished, his body is failing him. Shots that the captain would have once buried are now ringing off posts. He's slowed by the accumulation of the injuries of recent years. Hernias and broken jaws and the hundreds of other little ailments take their toll, and that's the way of the world. There are still nights when he looks like the Alfredsson of days gone by, nights when he's feeling good and can't be stopped. But they're fewer and fewer as more and more games are put in the books. He still wants to do it all -- you can see it in his play -- but he simply can't anymore.
And there's no one to replace him. That is the primary flaw of the 2010-11 Ottawa Senators.
It's not a lack of talent, so Bryan Murray can't be left holding the whole bag. It's not coaching. The answer to both criticisms is that Cory Clouston guided essentially the same roster less Anton Volchenkov to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference just last year. The talent is there. The coaching is there. The proof exists in last year's team. The difference is that this year, there's finally no one left to rally around. Who on the current roster can the team look to for the play that's going to ignite the team as in years past?
It's not Jason Spezza. Though the team's best center is unfairly maligned for his creative style of play, he hasn't shown an ability to lead this team. We've seen him mature these past two years, but he's a long way from being the voice in the locker room. The way Spezza has handled the abuse of the fans and media show that he's got the mentality to put the team on his back, but thus far in his career, his play has not shown the same promise. Leaders lead, plain and simple, and if Spezza can't get it done on the ice, it doesn't matter what he says in the locker room.
It's not Mike Fisher. No one is going to fault Fisher's effort level. In any given game, he's a player you know is going to give his all every shift. It's that mentaltiy that got him on the team in the first place. And while he has shown a bit of a penchant for scoring game-winning goals in overtime, Fisher cannot be depended on for big plays in big moments. Like Spezza, there are flashes of skill. Like Spezza, there are some nights he can dominate. But they're even more infrequent than Spezza's are. Fisher is a heart and soul guy, and there's no doubt someone of his character can be respected in the locker room, but he's not a player the team can rally around.
It's not Chris Phillips. He may be a veteran and a steady presence (current season excluded) but his level of play has never been the kind to inspire a team. Before this year, he was as steady as could be asked for. He did his job -- and did it well -- but nothing more. Phillips cannot lead the Ottawa Senators. No one wants a captain who you'd describe as "steady but uninspiring."
It's not Erik Karlsson. It may be someday, but right now he's still finding his way in the NHL. Karlsson may be putting up plenty of points, but he's still making mistakes that offset his contributions. It's unrealistic to burden a player so young with the responsibility of leadership. He doesn't need more pressure.
It's not Brian Elliott or Pascal Leclaire. When was the last time either of these players made a game-changing save? Elliott remains wildly inconsistent; he is as likely to let in a back-breaker as he is to stop a surefire goal. Leclaire has the talent to be that kind of player, but cannot stay healthy enough to actually do it. His injuries have him years behind in his development. Neither can be rallied behind.
No one on this roster is capable of replacing Daniel Alfredsson. It's that simple.
Wayne Scanlan of the Ottawa Citizen wrote this year that Dany Heatley told him in 2009 that the team was consumed with the "old guard" of the club, and not appreciative of him. While Heatley has the leadership skills of a lemming, it seems like there might have been some truth in what he said. The players Ottawa has traded for and then abandoned tell the story: Cory Stillman, Matt Cullen, Andy Sutton. Jason Smith and Luke Richardson lost to retirement. Their presence could be used right now, because the "old guard" is not getting it done. And the team looks lost in the meantime.
The next time the Senators get in a jam and you find yourself asking, "Who's going to get us out of this one?" you'll be asking yourself the same question the players probably are. When you come up with the same answer they do (probably something along the lines of, "Uh...") you won't have to worry about any other reasons for the team's failure's this year. With a roster like this, leadership is the difference between a lottery pick and a playoff spot, and the Senators have shown they don't have it.