Email Hot Stove: Do the Senators have a Leadership Problem

A Silver Seven Staff round table discussion

Question: Do the Senators have a leadership problem? If so, is the problem management? Is it the players? Both?

Adnan: I don't think any of us are qualified to answer that. Anyone saying either yes or no is making it up.

Amelia: I'm saying "leadership problem" is the excuse for this season's failures. Discuss.

I don't think it's making anything up to give your opinion on this.

Adnan: I don't see how anyone can give an informed opinion on the team's leadership.

Darren: I just don't think Spartacat is the type of mascot that can lead this team to a Cup.

Matt: Speaking as a pure outsider, I think there definitely has to be a leadership problem with the Sens. The question is not talent - we have lots of that. It's making players accountable to stick to a system. How many times this year did we hear the phrase 'making the same mistakes'? A kajillion. A coach can only do so much, but when a player (i.e. the captain and assistants) buys into that system as well and keeps as many other players in check as possible, it makes a massive difference - hence the comparison between Alfie's last year as C and Spezza's first year as C.

Sarah: I'd have to, regrettably, agree with Adnan in ways. We can only speculate about the leadership that we are physically able to witness, i.e., what we see on-ice and in media releases.
On-ice, perhaps there is a tendency on the Senators to play a bit lazy and uninspired. That is partially the players who hold the leadership cards AND management. The players need to motivate each other. Those with letters and the stars (Karlsson, Ryan) need to sometimes have that one shift or that one little speech that sends a message to the team saying, "Your turn to step up".
As for management, part of the job of the coaches is to get your team fired up (I don't mean being aggressive) as well. Give the young players some more confidence, taps on the shoulders - get back to being a player's coach, so to speak. That's what I noticed this year...with young players, being an open and encouraging coach is important, even in the big leagues.

Brad: There's definitely a leadership problem at the very top, IMO. I think we've seen enough from Euge to say that, even without going to rumours and third party info.

Sarah: Oh, yes. I forgot to mention the Euge. Having a very hands-on type of owner is hard. Yes, it's his money, but when he comes out and says stuff, it steps on Murray's toes and the coaching staff's - the people who have been hired to run the team.

Ary: I firmly believe that leadership starts at the top, and it's definitely a negative indictment to the organization by (possibly) having 2 captains leave in back-to-back years. To me, it's also quite sad to see the two most least talented Ottawa Senators of the late 90s - 2000s era in Neil + Phillips being our remaining "old guard" instead of Alfie, Hossa, Chara, Fisher, Kelly, Redden, etc.

I'm also confused about how management/ownership can talk about leadership as an issue, but think that having a new captain for a 3rd year in a row will help? I personally think that the "C" is just a representation of the group, and that there are many individual personalities in the locker room that help contribute to leadership-like decisions, but it still adds a negative spin on things.

Whatever the case may be, the Ottawa Senators need more TALENT, and shouldn't trade for leadership/character unless that certain player is ~ equally skilled as the other options

Peter: To speculate on this issue, I think the biggest leadership problem the Senators have is that there's currently an "old guard" that consists of Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips, and Chris Neil, and they all play very different hockey from the "new guard" of emerging leaders in the dressing room (Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur, and Erik Karlsson). The Senate Reform brought in this new group of players, and I think they offer a very promising future for the organization, but there seems to be a generational and stylistic rift between the two groups. That's part of the reason why I was surprised to see Chris Phillips re-signed, and also why I wouldn't be too disappointed to see Jason Spezza traded this off-season: I like both Phillips and Spezza and greatly respect what they've done for this organization, but I think it's time we let go of the old guard and embrace the new Senators. And that new guard also better fits the puck-possession style that Paul MacLean is said to embrace.

Chris Neil is kind of a wild card in this, but he could have a role in the new leadership core as the "institutional memory;" he shouldn't have a letter on his chest, but he shouldn't need one for his type of leadership. Or the team could deal him away; I don't think Chris Neil is in any way vital to the success of this team, although he could be an asset if he's remanded to the fourth-line role he's most suited to.

As for a new captain, I'm not sure we need one. If Spezza is traded in this off-season, I think a rotating captaincy among a group of players or simply three associate captains would be the best bet. Allow this team's leader to emerge on his own, rather than forcing the mantle onto someone.

Amelia: I think your point (that there's a stylistic difference between the old guard and the new guard) is an interesting one, Peter. As has been mentioned, leadership is a hard thing to quantified, but leading by example (in terms of on ice play) seems to be a term that has some traction around the league. With two groups "leading by example" in different ways, there's bound to be some friction.

I also think the concept of "institutional memory" is a good one and creates not just a sense of organizational values but also fosters a sense of tradition. However, there are many ways of generating institutional memory and hanging on to players who are replacement level at best at this point in their careers isn't necessarily the best way to achieve that. Of Phillips and Neil, I'd rather keep Phillips around. But not as a player, as an assistant coach or a defensive player development guy or something.

I think what some of you are getting at is the value of the captaincy. I think it's valuable as a marketing tool. But I think the impact on the ice and in the dressing room is hard to quantify. I think it's a little silly for fans to try and evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of Alfredsson, Spezza, Phillips, or Neil as leaders. However, I do think things like the captaincy matter to the players themselves. I don't like the idea of a rotating captaincy because it sends a mixed message: "we like you're style, but can't commit to it". I do think there's merit in not naming a new captain if and when Spezza is traded and just going with three alternates for a season. You're covered on the ice, but you vent the pressure a little and you let things evolve a bit more organically.

I do agree with Ary, that leaders need to be skilled too. That skill can take a lot of different styles etc. but where the Sens are at with Phillips and Neil doesn't cut it. I get their loyalty and veteran status, but at this stage in their careers it's hard to justify the ice time they're getting. If you don't want your leaders to be on the ice, it's hard for them to actually lead.

Brad: On Neil, how bad is it that someone with a letter leads the team in penalties? Sure, some of them were 2 minutes for being Chris Neil, but he earned the reputation that lead to those and I'm sure if you only looked at deserved penalties he'd still lead the team.
I suppose it's a surprising number of teams that have that though. Calgary, Carolina, Columbus, Philly, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington all have someone with a C or A leading the team in minor penalties. Those 10 teams plus Ottawa are pretty evenly spread among the ranking of times shorthanded too (Calgary is even 3rd lowest times shorthanded, despite Giordano ranking 24th in minors taken), so maybe it doesn't really mean much.

Peter: It's ridiculous, Brad. Neil shouldn't have a letter, first of all, but it's especially bad that he took so many penalties last year despite wearing one. He probably went around with too much intensity because he was trying to earn that A every night, and he ended up setting the team back as a result.

nkb: I think it speaks to the broader phenomenon of rewarding rough 'n tumble play in professional hockey. Teams see guys that "compete hard" and "stand up for their teammates" and they view that as leadership. I don't know, maybe it is, maybe it isn't. It's just too bad that somewhere on the order of 95 percent of the "leadership" in hockey is that sort of stuff.

Peter: Well, I think it is a form of leadership, but I don't think it's the form that should be rewarded with formal recognition like an A or a C. It's valuable in its own way, and there can be a place for those players, but our coach and GM need to better identify that place and make sure Chris Neil is put there.

(Spoiler alert: That place is the fourth line.)

nkb: Probably just personal opinion but I was never really inspired by the leadership of the gritty. I dunno, just not what I valued.

Sarah: Dependent on what kind of gritty and how you define it. For example, Jarome Iginla gritty = good. Chris Neil gritty = bad.

Amelia: isn't it more about skill then and not about grit?

Sarah: Well, not all of the skilled players make good leaders. Iginla, evidently, is a much more skilled player than Neil, but Iginla also played with a physical presence, an "edge" so to speak. He wasn't/isn't afraid to fight if need be.

Neil plays with grit - not afraid to fight - but there's too much of it and it doesn't come up at the right times, most often. His skill-set (or lack thereof) also don't help him.

So in conclusion (I feel like I'm actually writing an article), I think leadership takes the right amount of skill, with the right amount of heart (funny term, used a lot but often with empty meaning). Heart, from my perspective, means playing inTENTS, being gritty if you have to (basically, not backing down and sticking up for players), and wanting to help your fellow teammates.

Matt: Hear, hear. You can't have one without the other.

The teams that make it the furthest in the playoffs are the ones who have tough two way players who can hit and score goals (Kings - Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Kopitar - Ducks - Getzlaf, Chicago - Toews, Sharp, Bickell, Habs - Subban, Vanek,) - but any of those teams, there are pure finesse players too.

But the teams who have the most players who can do both (score and hit and intimidate) usually go the furthest.

I wouldn't define Neil grittiness as 'bad'. It's just a different kind than Iginla. Everyone wants a player like Iginla or Lucic - that's the modern NHL superstar.

The problem is that the Sens are the last dog at the bowl when it comes to those types of players.

Sarah: I didn't mean his was bad as in he's poop. I meant bad in terms of having a letter. Neil is definitely a heart and soul player, I'll admit. He tries to do as much as he can with limited resources. That said, his lack of production and ample amount of penalties make his a poor choice for captain/alternate.

If I had to choose...I'd be making a combination of A's and C's with:

* Clarkie

* Turris

* Karlsson

* Maybe Ryan - I believe he brings leadership to this team.

Obviously Phillips will keep his letter, I'm aware. But as people mentioned earlier, time to change to the new guard.

nkb: Eh, I think assigning equal value to contributions of these players based on intangibles like leadership is problematic; on the Kings, Anze Kopitar is driving the bus, Dustin Brown is along for the ride. Same with Chicago and Toews vs. Bickell: one is an almost irreplaceable superstar and the other is a run of the mill top 6-top 9 F.

Part of the hockey leadership/grit conflagration comes from the sport's ethos and identity being tied to "the ultimate team sport". I feel like we want to believe that everyone contributes in some way, but I'm not sure that's how this stuff really works. The best players carry teams and some guys are just along for the ride. It's nice for them that they were there, but there's no need to assign them value that doesn't exist. Shawn Thornton on the B's is a great example of this: it's nice he happened to play for Boston when they won the Cup, but you could sub him for like almost every other 4th liner in the league and BOS would not have suffered. It's a bit against human instincts, but I firmly believe not everyone contributes and we don't need to make up stuff about those that don't.

Matt: Some strong points nkb but whoa, whoa - you think Thornton could have been subbed for anyone? I definitely don't agree. Sure he doesn't score much (career high of 10 in 2010-11) but he dominates people.

And I definitely disagree about Brown being 'along for the ride'. Without him, the Kings are not where they are. At all. The guy has averaged 24 goals per season over 9 seasons (since his first real full season in 2005-06) and his PIM's are in the 60's most seasons - that is not an 'along for the ride' player in my books. Brown also finishes checks and gets under the skin of the opposition. I don't necessarily like him but he's a dang good player.

I think you're overvaluing skill and not giving enough weight to intimidation and force.

nkb: To each their own. I can only speak from personal experience in this regard: I've been intimated by someone's skill before, but never physically really, not in hockey anyways. And definitely not in a meaningful way.

Ary: I think that both size AND skill can be intimidating. I know that when I played D, I would get worried going into the boards with a guy who would hit, or worry on the rush about a skilled player who could deke my brains out ahah.

Finding players like Lucic, Iginla, etc. w/ a combination of size and skill is extremely hard. The Canucks have been trying to find a Lucic for the past 3 years. Has it worked? No. I really think that teams luck into players like that, but that the right mentality from a hockey ops perspective is to draft for skill and hope things work out. If you have too much skill? You can always trade for an already-identified talent, like Bobby Ryan.

With respect to 4th lines, I personally think that Chicago's (w/ Kruger) is the best in the league. Can you imagine surviving Toews, Kane, Sharp, Saad, etc. and see Kruger on the ice, expect to get a break, and then have them play in your end for most of the time? That's so valuable, and like clockwork, wears down an opposing defense core more than hits imo. You just end up chasing the puck and eventually get out of position.

If we agree that "having a 4th line that can spend more time in the oppositions end" is the most important characteristic, we can try to find a line has similar traits. The Kruger line is buried in zone starts (ZS% of less than 45% on ExtraSkater) but drives possession, so I'd think that you'd need a bunch of two-way players who are chippy and fast in order to break the puck out of your zone quickly in order to get in the opposing zone. This can be measured by possession (Corsi% on ExtraSkater), because we'd then expect that the Kruger line to put more shot attempts on the oppositions net than the line they're out against (>50% Corsi %)

From a Sens perspective, Pageau seems like he can develop into a tough mins two-way player. in the QMJHL, he went head-to-head w/ Huberdeau. In his rookie year, Richardson put him w/ Cowick. Then, give Pageau another two-way winger like Condra, and maybe someone like Grant or Cole Schneider (this could also be Greening if he improves) and then by consequence, we can give our top-6 more offensive zone starts (>50% ZS%), and therefore more offensive time, to do what they do best - score.

The lack of this kind of line (depth, insulation, etc.) led to Turris taking a ton of defensive zone faceoffs, as the Smith line often got killed (though I think Smith is useful, MacLean just plays him a ton), and Spezza gets stranded in the defensive zone.

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