The Ottawa Senators made the playoffs in 2017 and made it to the Eastern Conference Final. Rather than build on that, what ensued for the Senators are, broadly speaking, three and a half years of various disasters, ranging from the departure of one of the biggest stars in franchise history, team merchandise choking babies by accident, the PR travesty of the team owner threatening relocation on the eve of one of the biggest events and celebrations in team history, and of course, massive backlash against the team’s miserly owner Eugene Melnyk reaching a fever pitch and fans paying for billboards calling for his removal. All of this has occurred amidst abysmal on-ice results. With all this negativity, one could be forgiven for thinking this team would have no admirable history to speak of, but that is not the case. Some great players have played for this team, and several have worn the “C” as captain.
The earliest of the stars to be captain under my established timeline, five most recent captains, is... Randy Cunneyworth. Okay, he’s not a star, but the last five captains of this team are spread over a wide time frame, back to the early post-expansion years of this team, and teams always cycle through a handful of nobodies as captain in their first seasons of existence. The veteran forward, many years removed from his only major scoring seasons in the late 80s, was signed as a free agent and named captain prior to the 1994/95 season, specifically before that year’s lockout. Cunneyworth reached 30 points for the first time since 1989 during his captaincy, and did so twice, totaling 95 points (36G, 59A) in 276 games and leading them to both their first playoff appearance and their first series victory. Cunneyworth left in 1998, and the captaincy went to centre Alexei Yashin who, despite a relationship with the Sens that had been deteriorating almost since he was drafted, was still the best player on the team. Yashin scored 94 points (44G, 50A) in 82 games in 1998/99, and played in his second of three career All-Star Games, before deciding to hold out for a larger contract and demanding a trade. He wound up sitting out the 1999/00 season, being stripped of the captaincy, and having a tumultuous 2000/01 season, though to his credit having a decent year offensively before his franchise-altering trade to the Islanders, where he had five decent, but comparatively disappointing seasons and eventually got one of the richest buyouts in league history before leaving the team. 1996 Calder Trophy winner Daniel Alfredsson was named team captain for the 1999/00 season, becoming one of the most beloved captains in franchise history. From 1999/00 to 2012/13, Alfredsson scored 898 points (348G, 550A) in 906 games, winning a King Clancy Trophy and a Mark Messier Leadership Award, and played in the latter three of his six career All-Star Games. He reached 30 goals four times, including two 40-goal seasons, and 80 points four times, including the 100 mark once. He led the Senators to 11 playoff appearances, winning eight series victories. Standout seasons included 2007, when he led the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final, and 2013, when he led the Senators to a Conference Semifinal appearance despite injuries to Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, and Milan Michalek. Alfredsson went to Detroit in free agency for one season before retiring. Spezza, drafted with the pick acquired from the Islanders for Yashin, was named as his successor, adding 66 points (23G, 43A) in 75 games to his lofty career totals, but also missing the playoffs, before being traded to Dallas. Karlsson, already a two-time All-Star and one-time Norris winner and considered one of the best active offensive defencemen, was named captain. He would score 281 points (63G, 218A) in 312 games, won a second Norris Trophy, and led the way to two playoff appearances, including that 2017 Cinderella run, before his relationship with the team deteriorated like it does with every Sens star, and he was traded to San Jose.
Now let’s examine my picks for captain.
With the other teams in this year’s edition, the arguments in favour of not naming a captain are that the Devils arguably don’t have anyone deserving of the captaincy because of how badly they fell short of expectations last season, while the Rangers’ naming a captaincy would officially send a message that they’re taking a step forward, one that I figured they’d take last season but didn’t, and as a result may not this time around. With Ottawa, it’s different. Ottawa has been one of the worst-run teams of recent league history, leaving them with few standout talents. Unlike Detroit, who at least have some good players who got time on the roster with a great former player, the best candidates are young players who didn’t make it onto the team until after their 2017 playoff run, and the beginning of the organizational tumult that followed. The Senators are expecting the lion’s share of their results to be produced by young players, many of whom are rookies, if not all Calder-eligible. Essentially, the bunch that would normally comprise the best picks for captain instead is made up of a bunch that would be most helped by the presence of someone else as captain.
Tkachuk is only coming off his second NHL season, but the results are very similar in year two to year one. He played the same number of games, 71, and only scored one fewer goal. He’s the most consistent offensive forward on the team, and he’s really the only forward on the team expected to take an offence-leading role on the team who also has NHL seasons under his belt. It’s a steep burden to place on a 2018 draftee, but young up-and-comers like Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, and 2020 first-rounder Tim Stutzle would have a real leader in Tkachuk, considering he’s young enough himself to still be their peer.
Arguably the reasons I’ve stated Tkachuk would be a good pick for captain apply more to Chabot, and the reasons he wouldn’t apply less. Chabot has been in the organization since 2015, so he’s older and more mature, and has been an actual member of the team for longer. At age 23, he’s arguably more mature than Tkachuk as a player, but would still be young enough that the Senators’ young guns would still have that peer relationship with him.
I think speculation abounds when a team, especially a bottom-feeder like Ottaawa, acquires a player like Erik Gudbranson that such a player would be a good pick as captain for his leadership qualities. I have alluded to my distaste for such a line of reasoning before, but I’ll speak plainly. The captaincy is a leadership position, and while it does have key aspects of its role and who is fit to own it beyond just on-ice performance, the on-ice performance aspect ought to be non-negotiable, because leadership includes doing what those being led are expected to do. With just the intangible leadership qualities so many like Gudbranson are credited with, they don’t make for an adequate leader because, as is implied by the fact that their leadeship qualities and intangible traits are the first and only things mentioned when listing such a player’s assets, they don’t have that crucial “do along with those under his charge” quality that separates a leader from a coach, in other words a boss. Gudbranson has been established as having not really anything beyond his intangible qualities, so he can’t “do.” How this connects to Coburn is that he appears to be in the same situation as Gudbranson, someone who would be picked as captain for his intangible qualities alone. But I see Coburn as a “he has veteran presence” captain pick who can still contribute on the ice. He’s been a decent offensive producer at times for a shut-down type defenceman, having reached 20 points four times, including 2018/19, and is coming off a Stanley Cup victory. I’m kind of cheating by taking this season in progress into account, but he’s averaging more than 16 minutes per game early on and his early production has him on and 82-game pace of 28 points, so early returns definitely suggest he’s still got game, which makes him a suitable “veteran presence” pick, which would help a team with as much youth and as little experience in key areas as Ottawa.
In the process of typing this out, I kind of convinced myself that the superior captain pick is Coburn. With how little talent Ottawa has on the blueline, Coburn will be very important to the Sens blueline, and the Sens are just too inexperienced at the top of the roster to warrant naming someone at the top of the roster captain. Coburn can be a placeholder captain for the year, and since the 35-year-old Cup-winner will be relied on as a leader anyway, why not make it official and give him the “C” for a year or two?