The Future of The Captaincy

Andrew Ference seems to be a true professional. He’s a
physical fitness nut. He’s engaged in the community. He does all kinds of
charitable and simply kind work using his celebrity to make the lives of others
better. He’s played almost 900 NHL games and there’s every reason to believe he’ll
hit 1000 before it’s all said and done. But it’s time to start wondering who
will be the next captain of the Oilers.

Andrew Ference is the elder statesman on a team full of
young kids. He is a week away from turning 36 on a team that’s roughly a decade
younger on average. He’ll be closer the age of McEichel’s parents than he would
be McEichel (or whomever the Oilers draft in 2015). Is that necessarily a
problem?

No, not by itself it isn’t. The problem isn’t really that
Andrew Ference is reaching what is normally the twilight of his career. The problem
is that he is already arguably the Oilers’ 5th defenseman and with two
more years on his contract there’s every chance that the ravages of time are
going to force him into an even more marginal position on the team.

Combine the probability that his effectiveness, which is
already suspect, is going to erode along with the fact that he is remarkably
older and in a different place in his life than the rest of his team and you
get question marks about his ability to lead this team on the ice. Off the ice
is the least of my concerns about Ference, but on it?

Is it ideal to have your captain spending more and more time
on the bench while the kids are out trying to win the games? I don’t think so.
I’ve always believed in two main things when it comes to leadership.

1) Real leadership isn’t forced.

2) Your leadership should be coming from the best members of
your team.

FORCING THE ISSUE

Just to get it out of the way, it’s not Andrew Ference’s
fault that the coach named him the captain of the Oilers before he knew what he
had. He was in the right place at the right time and liked to exercise.
It’s hard to imagine a way Dallas Eakins wouldn’t gravitate towards a fellow
newcomer that was close in age, had a similarly aged family, was a fitness nut,
and played his former position. Right place. Right time.

The rookie coach made a gut decision (it had to be because
he had nothing else to go on) and picked who he thought was best for the job.
But in doing so he failed to account for how that might be considered in the
room. I can’t say for certain, but I think it would have been only natural for some
of the players to raise an eyebrow at the new coach coming in and naming a guy
who hadn’t been around the team at all the new captain.

It was a nightmare when Mark Messier, the leaderiest leader
that ever leadered, was named the captain of the Canucks upon his arrival. If it
didn’t work for Mess I can’t see how it could have worked for someone who has
never been considered on the same level in any aspect of his skill or “intangibles”.
It’s just not a good practice in any environment for outside management to come
in and immediately bypass all the people who have put in sweat equity for their
company before ever assessing them.

If it’s not good in a bland cubicled office, it can’t possibly
be good in a profession that demands as much individual buy-in as professional
sport.

This should be somebody you turn to when times are difficult
on and off the ice. This is someone you can follow and trust. How can anybody
trust you if they don’t even know you? Those were the circumstances of Andrew
Ference’s arrival and subsequent promotion to captain. The outside voice of
Dallas Eakins made his go-between the outside voice of Andrew Ference. That’s a
tough sell.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Alluded to above, Ference’s abilities are already in
decline. Time is no great friend to professional athletes, even ones who keep
the training regime of a Navy SEAL. It’s obviously just my opinion, but I think
it’s important that leadership comes from your biggest difference makers. If I
want something done right, these are the people I look towards. That applies to
any setting. And for the Oilers of 2015 the person you can depend on to tilt
the game in your favor isn’t the captain.

Ference’s ability to contribute offensively at even strength
has been in constant decline for the past four years. His points per 60 minutes is
dwindling away with very little hope of recovery. Here they are:

2011-2012 1.01 P/60

2012-2013 0.76 P/60

2013-2014 0.65 P/60

2014-2015 0.57 P/60

His offense is in a tailspin and it’s unlikely that he’s
going to pull out of it in time. As it’s likely that his ice time will also
drop in the last two years of his deal, we should expect to see his actual totals
drop even further since the only way to make up for diminishing points per 60
is to simply increase playing time. It’s not looking good for the captain
offensively.

A lot of his drop in offense will also be related to his
usage. Of the players remaining on Edmonton’s shattered roster, no defenseman
has a higher percentage of starts in the defensive zone than Andrew Ference. As
Jeff Petry’s primary partner all year, he has been thrown out there a lot.

If we look at Andrew Ference’s WOWYs for with and without
Jeff Petry, the picture becomes more clear. It’s frightening, but it’s clear.
Ference was being dragged around the ice by Montreal’s newest defenseman.

Over the last two season the pair played a little over 1000
minutes together and a little over 1200 minutes apart.

Ference With Petry

45.7% Corsi For, 24.9% OZ, 36.1% DZ, 39.0% NZ

Ference Without Petry

42.6% Corsi For, 29.3% OZ, 33.4% DZ, 37.3% NZ

Petry Without Ference

49.4% Corsi For, 28.6% OZ, 35.6% DZ, 35.7% NZ

The Captain was getting a push by playing with Petry.
Together they weren’t overly impressive but unshackled from each other the two
couldn’t be further apart. While Petry was pushing the possession back to respectability
Ference has been dragging it back down. Moving forward as the offense seems to
be evaporating, this will also be an issue if it goes unchecked.

WHO SHOULD BE THE CAPTAIN IF NOT FERENCE?

We can make arguments for and against several names, and I’m
sure we will, but circling back to my earlier point, maybe it’s time outsiders
stop having a say in who the captain is.

Here’s a wonderful excerpt from a story about Jean Beliveau
by Red Fisher. This particular part chronicles the way one of the greatest captains in Montreal
Canadiens history came to wear the C for the first time. Read the whole thing here. 

“We had an exhibition game in Vancouver and then we went to
Seattle and Trail,” Béliveau recalled. “We’re in this little hotel and I’ve got
this really bad cold. I’m sweating. I’m coughing, I’m weak, but I went with the
team to the arena.
“Toe came to me: ‘Jean, can you dress?’ he asked. ‘The arena
is full. They want to see you play. I’ve got to dress you,’ he said.
“‘Toe, I haven’t got much, but I’ll play a couple of
shifts,’ I told him.
“Second shift, there’s this big guy on defence. I tried to
go around him, but I had no legs. We fell. I pulled a ligament in my knee. Two
months out,” he said with a sigh.
“So I’m in a cast when the boys are having the vote for
captain. Toe’s fedora is being passed around the room, and we’re dropping the
little papers into it. You could vote for Dickie, for ‘Boom’, for Tom Johnson
or for me. By then, I had been 33 days in a cast. I never thought for a second
anybody would vote for me. I voted for Dickie.
“There was supposed to be two ballots,” Béliveau added, “and
after the first, Toe told me two guys had tied. Me and Geoffrion. ‘You two will
be the only guys on the second ballot,’ he said.”
Once again, the players tossed little papers into Blake’s
fedora. Minutes later, an exercised “Boom Boom” stormed out of the room, sat
down in the penalty box — with tears running down his cheeks.
“What’s the problem?” I asked him.
“Those guys picked Béliveau,” he snapped.
“So, what’s wrong with that?” Geoffrion was asked.
Recalled Béliveau: “Yeah, ‘Boom’ was a little upset. But ah
… you know ‘Boom’. He was upset that day, but the next morning he was all
right.
“After the vote, I went up to see Mr. Selke: ‘I don’t
deserve to be captain of this team,’ I told him.
“He said: ‘What would you want me to do? Go downstairs and
tell those players they picked the wrong guy?’ ”

Let the players chose who their Captain is. Take a vote.
Make it a couple rounds if need be. The coaching carousel has meant that nobody
really has a great handle on who the leaders in the room really are except the
players themselves and there’s no guarantee the team will even stick with the coach
behind the bench today. I know it really is convention for the team to decide its captain but it doesn’t have to be that way.

No forcing a leader on the team. No guess work from the
coaching staff. Players are capable of bypassing a more experienced candidate
to choose the right one as Beliveau’s Canadiens did when they chose him over
Boom Boom Geoffrion. He didn’t feel like he was ready, the greatest captain in
Montreal’s history, when he was voted by his peers to be the captain. In Edmonton the future captain might be Taylor Hall. It might be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It might be Oscar Klefbom.

I would just like to know who this team would select to be its
captain if Ference were to step aside or get moved along and they were given the option to have a say in it themselves.