The art of picking a captain

Senators players sound off on front-runners Spezza, Phillips.

The art of picking a captain
Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza, right, and Chris Phillips take part in training camp at the Scotiabank Place Ottawa on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Who should be the next captain of the Ottawa Senators?

It’s a question that has already sparked sometimes heated debate among fans.

It’s no less intense among the players themselves, though those divisions are more difficult to see.

The issue is highly political, and players are less willing to declare their intentions for fear of alienating another candidate.

That was certainly the feeling on Monday during an informal sampling of opinion from four players — three current members, and one other player.

Only the former player, Matt Carkner, now of the New York Islanders, was willing to declare his choice. Of three finalists — Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips, and Chris Neil — Carkner went with Phillips.

“As a defenceman, I have to go with a defenceman,” said Carkner, who was with the Ottawa organization for five years before signing last summer with the Islanders.

A year removed from the Ottawa dressing room, Carkner has been a captain and alternate captain on minor league teams along the way to the NHL.

“I’ve always had a ton of respect for Chris Phillips,” he said. “He’s been there for a long time, and he’s always been that quiet leader. He works hard on the ice, he’s a great guy in the room.

“He’s not overly vocal but when he is you listen.”

But the three current members of the team — Kyle Turris, Marc Methot, and Binghamton Senators captain Mark Borowiecki — all passed on making a formal declaration.

The captain is generally picked by the coaching staff.

The next captain of the team will be the eighth since the Senators returned to the NHL in 1992 and the first since Daniel Alfredsson was given the C in 1999, after Alexei Yashin was stripped of it for refusing to honour his contract.

The good thing is that there are a number of good candidates.

“(Jason Spezza) is a great leader and a very good all-around person, besides being one of the best hockey players in the league,” said Turris.

“(Chris Phillips) is a very, very good veteran presence, he’s a great leader who everybody looks up to.

“I mean, we’re lucky. We’ve got great people who can step in and fill the void.”

While Chris Neil, 34, is probably a long-shot for the C (but will definitely have an A), the front-runners appear to be Spezza, 30, and Phillips, 35.

The argument for Spezza is that he’s in his prime as the offensive leader of the team and should be given the chance to put his stamp on it.

But, with just two more years left on his contract, he will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015.

If owner Eugene Melnyk doesn’t want to pay Spezza what he wants, and that’s a pretty fair possibility, the Senators could be kissing goodbye their second captain in three years.

The argument for Phillips, drafted No. 1 overall by the Senators in 1996, is that he is a respected leader in the NHL and in the community and deserves to be recognized with the C.

But he has only one year left on his contract and may not even get an offer from the Senators for another year, meaning his reign could also be short lived.

Methot said the players will be happy with whoever gets picked by the coaches.

“The captain should be the guy who everyone looks up to,” he said.

“The guy who is a consummate professional at the arena and carries himself the same way off the ice. The guy who everyone has a lot of respect for.

“I don’t think it’s a difficult decision. We’ve got the guys who can do the job.”

Just the fact that there’s a pitched debate among fans is a source of enjoyment for Methot.

“This is what playing in hockey in Ottawa is all about,” he said. “I love it that fans are having this debate. That means they are involved and it’s great for us.”

The newly crowned captain will have to learn that there’s a delicate balance to maintain.

Borowiecki discovered this last season when he was named Binghamton’s captain after Andre Benoit was permanently promoted to Ottawa.

Borowiecki is an admired player in the organization because he always works so hard. He said it was important to continue that example. It’s difficult, though, because the captain by definition has an expanded role.

“You don’t want to change your style, but you do have to step up even more,” he said. “You’re looked on as the leader of the team, and the responsibility is yours.

“But I think the mistake you can make is letting that come into the forefront too much and allowing it to affect your play.”

Carkner said that team captains need to have a number of characteristics, but the most important might be an ability to understand his teammates.

“Basically it’s the guy who has a good grasp of what the team is all about,” he said.

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