NHL rumours are abound these days, particularly concerning questions as to whether or not the Ottawa Senators will trade captain Jason Spezza. Interestingly enough, the discussion here seems to be more geared toward when Ottawa might trade Spezza, with hardly any consideration of whether they even should trade him. Evidently the rationale behind this potential move is clear: many affirm that Spezza did not handle his new captaincy role very well. Issues of accountability were often brought up, and hordes of Sens fans wanted his head on a platter following a career-worst +/- rating of -26. I am fully aware that I’m in a very marginal minority in asserting this, but in spite of the ostensible consensus (at least among fans) that Spezza must go, there is a very important argument that needs to be made against the Senators doing away with their captain. So I’m stepping up to the plate.
The Senators were one of the biggest head-scratching stories in sports this past year. This was a very talented team with the right pieces in place and a team which everyone expected to compete for the Atlantic division title in the NHL. Instead, we saw a team which stumbled badly out of the gate and just could never quite recover as it became plagued by shoddy defensive play and just looked uninspired overall. Many observers pointed, quite rightly in my opinion, to the sudden departure of longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson and how losing such an integral piece of the dressing room in that fashion veritably weakened the foundation of the on-ice product. The team as a whole had zero accountability for themselves and were left starving for proper leadership. Ultimately, while it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as a year ago, the Senators could shoot themselves in the foot by almost replicating the same situation again. Yes, while Jason Spezza is not Daniel Alfredsson, he could potentially become what Alfredsson used to be in Ottawa - the true leader it desperately needs. And yes, while Spezza was supposed to assume those leadership and accountability roles as captain this past season, I believe that Spezza was a victim of circumstance in that regard, as he was (relatively) quickly thrust into a role which almost instantly required new things of him, new qualities which perhaps he was not yet fully groomed for. In addition, Spezza was forced the assume the whipping boy position for a team which struggled as a whole and whose troubles clearly went far beyond what any one player could explain or do. With all due respect to Spezza, simply putting the ‘C’ on another player’s sweater could not salvage what the team suffered in losing such a steady rock in Daniel Alfredsson. Shipping Spezza out of town does nothing to address this glaring problem, but it could perpetuate it.
As it stands, the only way the Senators could maybe cushion the blow of losing Spezza would be to directly acquire another number one centre of similar calibre as part of the return package. This is much easier said than done. More often than not, the return portions of deals like these end up being comprised of top prospects, high draft picks or highly valued young roster players, or a combination thereof. The unwillingness of many teams to give up their number one centres, even in a straight swap, just goes to further demonstrate how valuable these players truly are. From this big-picture standpoint, the potential loss of Spezza becomes even more foreboding for the Senators. Every NHL dynasty was anchored by a leading centreman, as history teaches us. The steadiness of Jean Beliveau in Montreal and Mark Messier in New York. The dynamism of Bryan Trottier on Long Island and Scott Gomez in New Jersey. And then of course, there is no divergence from this pattern in the modern NHL. Every formidable franchise today has been built around a common cornerstone: a number one centre at the reigns. Simply run down the list. Jonathan Toews in Chicago. Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim. Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles. Mikko Koivu in Minnesota. Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay. Henrik Sedin in Vancouver. David Krejci in Boston. With the exception of Vancouver, all of the aforementioned clubs qualified for the playoffs in 2014, and this was the first spring without Canucks hockey in 6 seasons. It is no coincidence that strength and depth down the middle has been a key ingredient of the success enjoyed by all of these franchises, and that begins with one centre at the helm. Such figures are more important for long-term growth and sustained success in hockey than arguably any other piece - more so than number one goaltenders or steady stay-at-home defensemen or even head coaches. Say what you will about Spezza - the growing pains of his leadership role, his lacklustre defensive efforts at times - but at the end of the day, he is the undisputed number one centre on his team. Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad are great up-and-comers, but both are still at least a couple of seasons away from really asserting themselves as top-flight NHL centres. After them, there isn’t anybody who is capable of stepping up and replacing the gap that Spezza would leave in Ottawa. As a result, his role and status as the number one centre is one of the most crucial pieces in place for the gradual re-ascension of the Ottawa Senators to the NHL’s elite clubs that many, including me, are anticipating.
After losing the biggest piece of their core leadership group last year in Daniel Alfredsson and witnessing the palpable effect it had on that dressing room, one just has to wonder if management in Ottawa is giving this potential move the consideration it demands.