The Dallas Stars acquired Jason Spezza to add another level of scoring to a quality "we-should -have-beaten-the-Anaheim-Ducks-in-round-one" 2014 squad. Spezza has been a quality offensive player for the Stars, but they aren't getting the level of production they expected when they acquired him this summer then signed him to a four year 30 million dollar extension in November.
Its a bit unfair to complain about a player with 26 points in 36 games playing on a team that has been fighting small fires all season as they finally seem to be hitting their stride, but the reality is that the Stars didn't acquire Spezza to be their 7th most productive scorer at even strength among forwards.
Spezza is playing for only his second NHL team. He has a new coach. He has new teammates. He's in a new city in a new conference. They need more out of him at even strength one way or the other. We can list any number of off ice reasons, but at some point those issues fade into the background and at the end of the day they need to win games.
I don't get the sense that he or the team have used any of these as excuses, but I also don't think his production has been seen as a problem given his overall point total. It's a bit misleading.
As mentioned above, Spezza right now is 7th in Points/60 at even strength among Stars forwards. I pulled Spezza's last seven years of even strength production from behindthenet.ca to see how much of a drop off we're talking from his career levels to this season.
*In 2013 Spezza only played in five games.
Spezza is down about a full point per 60 minutes off his seven year average when we look at goals and primary assists. His average production over the time span featured above would put him just below or tied with Jamie Benn for 2nd on the Stars in even strength Points/60 this season.
If we just look at the counting numbers Spezza is currently on pace for 33 points at even strength. If he finishes with 33 points at even strength that would tie the output from his worst offensive season of his career, non-injury shortened division. He is down in both goal and assist rates. His shooting percentage is down this year a hair, but he's also attempting the fewest shots per game at even strength since his first two years in the league. The last seven years are pictured below:
The drop in goals is fairly small given the amount of time we're talking here (and the drop in shots, and the slight drop in shooting percentage), but the severe drop in assists makes you scratch your head a little bit. Part of the issue here is his teammates. The sub nine on ice shooting percentage he's sporting (shooting percentage of he and his teammates with him on the ice) doesn't help. I pulled Spezza's scoring data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com and, wouldn't you know, Spezza hasn't filled up the stat sheet with his two most common linemates:
These numbers are only what Spezza has done with these players on the ice. He has two points with Ales Hemsky on the ice this year, and only four with Erik Cole. (Hemsky, for his part, has recorded five points with Spezza. Cole has recorded four). Most of his offensive production has come with either Benn or Tyler Seguin. In fact, if we are willing to assume his scoring rate with Seguin is sustainable over a long period he would currently be in the midst of having the best offensive season of his career if he had spent all year with Seguin.
You may be asking yourself if you just read give or take 500 words to be told that when a player plays with Seguin or Benn they are more productive than when they play with Hemsky or Cole. Essentially that's what happened.
There is more though.
We're talking small sample sizes here, but I find it interesting how infrequently Spezza is shooting with Seguin and Benn on the ice. The information can be perplexing if you aren't careful. My initial reaction was that Spezza is taking extra shots when he centers the second line to compensate for not having Benn or Seguin on the ice, but it turns out that isn't the case. Pictured below are Spezza's shot rates with all forwards with whom he skated for at least 100 minutes over the past seven years sorted by shots per 60:
Neither Cole or Hemsky are far from the norm, though Spezza does attempt more shots than usual with Hemsky on the ice. Benn and Seguin both stick out at the bottom here. Spezza barely shoots with those two on the ice at even strength.
I mentioned that Benn seems to be deferring to Seguin more this year in a recent post. Now it appears that Spezza is deferring to both of them when he is on the ice with them to an even more extreme degree. It's hard to blame him. Benn is the team captain and had 79 points last year. Seguin is leading the world in goals this year. These are players most players in the NHL need to defer to heavily.
Should Spezza though? He has been almost exactly a point per game player over nearly 700 NHL games. Historically he has been a better offensive player than Benn. What do the Stars gain by Spezza looking to set those two up above all else?
We can attempt to find out with the very important caveat that always bears repeating: these are very small sample sizes. I put together the Goal/60 rates of the three players in question together. Essentially I subtracted the goal rate of the player in the row without the player in the column from the goal rate when both of those players are on the ice. For example the intersection of 14 and Seguin is how much worse Benn has been without Seguin on the ice. The intersection of 91 and Benn is how much better Seguin has been without Benn on the ice.
Both Spezza and Benn have been on the ice for more goal scoring when on the ice with Seguin - obviously. He leads the league in goals. Spezza also has seen an increase with Benn, though not as severe.
The offense is all but flowing through Seguin at this point so the real question is this: how best can the Stars maximize his scoring without crippling the rest of the roster? Seguin has performed at a higher rate with Spezza, but at a lower rate with Benn (albeit in limited minutes). Benn has been just as proficient without Spezza on the ice as with him, though most of those minutes without him have had Seguin on the ice. If these trends continue an argument can be made for keeping Spezza and Seguin together with Benn spearheading the second line. That, or Spezza should stay on the second line.
Either option makes the Stars a more dangerous team than when they have one line of attack. At times they can do beautiful things, but no matter how beautiful it looks the fact that only one puck is on the ice at a time never changes. If Spezza and Benn are picking up points assisting on the same goals repeatedly the Stars don't gain as much as they would with two productive lines producing goals.
The idea of Benn spearheading the second line fits into what the Stars like to do. Ruff has been giving Spezza healthy offensive zone starts (62.4%) and keeping Seguin closer to the opposition net is never an awful idea. Benn has seen his defensive responsibilities increase this year, and through a couple years of playing together he and Cody Eakin have played well together. You could slot Cole in on the new top line with Hemsky on the second line for an interesting alternative look.
Again though I want to stress how small some of these lengths of time are. We aren't talking about years of information in most cases. This is merely a snapshot of what has gone on so far at almost the midway mark of the season. What appears to be going on is a combination of Spezza leaning a bit too far to the playmaker side of things with the wonder duo and his other usual linemates being snake-bitten.
Spezza is first and foremost a playmaker. It's natural to expect him to try to set up players as talented as Benn and Seguin, and perhaps that is part of the problem. Lindy Ruff has liked rolling those three together throughout the season, but maybe he should resist the urge, If he waits out the second line as currently constructed the offense will come around. If he decides to shake things up again, maybe a different look than the super trio could provide that spark,