Jason Spezza has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Was always near the top of the scoring charts the past ten years or so, always considered one of the best players in the Eastern Conference and going along on several deep playoff runs with the Senators until the team fell apart the past few years.
When it became clear that Spezza could be an option for the Stars in a trade, I was intrigued -- I knew he was considered one of the best centers in the NHL but that he'd been recently injured, and because I mainly watch the West I just wasn't as familiar with him as I am other players around the league.
So, I've turned to Amelia of Silver Seven Sens to fill us in on a few of the gaps and give her opinion on Spezza's time with Ottawa, and what to realistically expect from him moving forward.
To start with, tell us about Jason Spezza's time in Ottawa and how he was looked upon by the team and fans.
Spezza was a part of the Sens organization since his teenage years. He was a top prospect coming out of junior and was the key piece (well, the second overall pick used to draft him was) in the Yashin trade with the New York Islanders, so it's fair to say expectations were high for Spezza from the start. Then Senators coach Jacques Martin didn't help things when he said of Spezza that he was "a boy playing a man's game" during Spezza's first training camp. He was returned to junior, but the criticism always stuck with Spezza in some sections of the fan base.
Things changed for Spezza when Martin was let go and Dany Heatley was added. The offensive system the team played under Murray suited Spezza and he was his most productive during the heyday of the "Pizza Line" (6+ goals in a game meant fans could exchange ticket stubs for free pizza slices) when Spezza centered Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. For a long time, Spezza was Ottawa's most creative offensive player. But he wasn't without his critics: too soft, error prone (his no look drop passes infuriated some Sens fans), and injury problems. Post lockout, he was always Ottawa's number one centre until this past season and was brought into Ottawa's leadership group at the start of Ottawa's rebuild in 2011. He seemed to have trouble fighting Coach Paul MacLean's preferred 200 foot, possession game but injuries were a concern in 2012-2013 and to start last season.
Spezza put up big numbers as recently as a few years ago, then he had his back surgery and started this past season slow -- how did he look as the season progressed?
There were concerns about a groin injury to start the season (started in the preseason actually) and he played through it but maybe that was a mistake. He wasn't given much time to gel with Bobby Ryan and was working through injury with less than ideal linemates. Still, there were promising moments early like his hat trick against the Coyotes. He definitely looked better as the season progressed - and got his game going on the power play first. While much has been written about his last 20 games and chemistry with Ales Hemsky, he was looking better in January and February.
A lot has been mentioned of Hemsky and Spezza's chemistry; what worked between them and what didn't?
Hemsky and Spezza both think the game creatively and offensively and have the hands to make the incredible work. Through in Erik Karlsson feeding them breakout passes and it was an impressive attack. Offensive zone play worked between them and so did the power play. Still, this isn't a pairing you want playing tough defensive zone minutes or against the other team's best players. Defense is secondary.
There's a theory that Spezza could be more effective with the Stars because now he won't be facing top competition every game and can be "hidden" a bit on the second line. Do you agree?
For the majority of the season, Spezza was facing second line competition and the Turris line was going up against opponents' best lines. A healthy Spezza should be able to excel in this role in Dallas. It's not that his play has dropped considerably since his excellent 2011-2012 season, it's that he is not the type of excellent two-way player we associate with the league's premier centres.
What are Spezza's best strengths? Weaknesses?
Spezza has great hands and a fantastic shot. His shot tends to get overlooked as he is a primarily a playmaker. He has four seasons of 30+ goals though and could have more if he was less of a pass-first guy. He has excellent vision and is capable of some truly breathtaking passes. He is very good on the draw. He isn't fast and back problems and groin injuries aren't going to help in that regard. He's not an overly physical player. While he has improved defensively throughout his career (including his faceoff %) he will never be confused for a defensive specialist. He's a veteran NHLer but lacks the gravitas that some in the game and some fans require. Oh, and his laugh. Both his greatest strength and weakness.
Putting aside fan bias, what's your honest take on Spezza and what we might expect from him moving forward?
I think Spezza will be a useful pick up for Dallas this season. I think 20-25 goals and 60+ points is realistic at this point. If he develops chemistry with his wingers and sees a lot of time on the power play, maybe he can add a few more assists and push his point total closer to 70. I think expecting more than 25 goals at this point in his career is unrealistic. I don't think you'll have to worry about him displacing Seguin on the top line. Health is key with Spezza; if he can stay healthy I would expect those point totals.
If the Stars brass like what they see from him and talk extension, things could get messy. I think Spezza has a few seasons left a good offensive production. But given his injury history, the general trends of decline for players over 30, and the slight decline we've already seen, I think a long term deal probably isn't money well spent.