As surprised as he was by Daniel Alfredsson leaving the Ottawa Senators, Jason Spezza talked with the former captain enough to not be shocked.
“I could understand some of his reasoning and wish him the best,” Spezza said.
But understanding is different than figuring out how to replace what Alfredsson brought the Senators, most notably the unquestioned leadership that came from his 17 seasons in Ottawa. Spezza would welcome the captaincy in Alfredsson’s absence, and the 30-year-old centre doesn’t believe he has to alter much in order to assume that responsibility.
“I think for me, leadership’s something that comes naturally,” Spezza said at last week’s NHL player media tour in Newark, N.J. “I think I’ve had a big say in what’s gone on in our room over the last few years, so it won’t change much in how I approach the team.
“Obviously it’d be a huge honour. But to this point we’ve had a great group and we have some guys that have been there for a long time and we’ve always kind of led as a group, even with Alfie there. So I imagine it would be the same way with whoever’s wearing the ‘C.'”
Spezza has played 611 games for the Senators dating to 2002-03, a tenure only surpassed by 1996 No. 1 pick Chris Phillips (1,073 games dating to 1997-98) and Chris Neil (779 games dating to 2001-02). Phillips’ long-standing presence on defence makes him the other reasonable choice to succeed Alfredsson as captain.
But Spezza, given his star power and how much he wants to lead the post-Alfredsson era, seems to be the natural fit.
“I think there’s a lot of leaders in Ottawa,” centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau said Saturday during a rookie tournament in London. “Spezza being there for a couple of years now, I think he has good potential to be a good leader. He’s real nice with everyone, and every time he’s on the ice he give everything he has.”
Back and knee injuries limited Spezza to just five regular-season and three playoff games last season, and he concedes not being invited to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp “gives me a little chip on my shoulder.”
“I’m pretty motivated just by not playing last year,” he said. “I want to have a good year. I’ve prepared myself to have a good year.”
The Senators are counting on that in the wake of Alfredsson signing a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings, now an Atlantic Division rival. Spezza returning to the form that included 84 points in 2011-12 would be a nice step toward being back in the playoffs.
For Spezza to do that and perhaps assume the captaincy, former Ottawa assistant Luke Richardson believes consistency needs to be the priority.
“There’s areas of the game as a leader and you want to be a leader every night,” said Richardson, a former teammate of Spezza’s who now coaches the AHL’s Binghamton Senators.
“You can’t put the risk in at the neutral zone and at the blue line when you’re maybe creating two chances but you’re giving them two chances. So I think that’s the part of the game that has gotten way better, and hopefully it continues to get better, and that’ll be a good judge on whether he’s the leader of this team.”
Richardson, who spent three seasons on the staff in Ottawa, senses Spezza’s desire to be captain.
“I think I really see that he wants to be the leader, he wants to pass on some of the things that he learns to the other guys and help them get along,” Richardson said.
“He’s a guy that over the last few years has really grown as a person and he’s matured. He’s been around the league a long time, he’s had some rough times, he’s had some real successful times, and he’s learned from guys like Daniel Alfredsson and other veterans that have been in Ottawa the last few years.”
Veterans are hard to come by on a young Senators team that features 2011-12 Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson and goaltender Craig Anderson, who helped keep Ottawa afloat last season amid a torrent of injuries.
But Spezza already sounds like a man who wants to prove the Senators can be better this season without Alfredsson.
“We add a couple good players with Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan, Joe Corvo on defence, so I think possibly we have a chance to be a better team than we were last year,” he said. “We look better on paper and we should be a better team, but now it’s our job to put it all together.”
It’s a job that starts with Spezza.