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Jason Spezza’s Early Struggles Emblematic of Dallas Stars’ Top-Heavy Offense

While his former linemates jet-set with new-hotness Alexander Radulov, Spezza seems stuck on the struggle bus. How bad has the early season been, and what is it going to take to get the veteran center going?

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Dallas Stars
Spezza has yet to click with any of his new linemates
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the cold-water moment that is a loss to freaking Colorado, the Dallas Stars entered Tuesday night’s contest on the back of a four-game winning streak. Even with the setback, the season’s opening month has been largely kind to the Stars, both in terms of performance and result. If this were an article about Ben Bishop, the Penalty Kill, or an improved defense, we’d be in business. Compliment city (mostly). Instead, this is an attempt to make sense of Jason Spezza, and a start that has progressed from curious to concerning in just a few short weeks.

First the nasty, obvious number: zero. As in, through nine games, the veteran pivot has yet to score. Overall, offense has been a major struggle for Spezza so far. Since an assist against Nashville (one of only three this season), he’s been bone-dry. That’s a five game stretch, for those of you scoring at home. It’s not a crisis, but it’s also not something you want to see from a 34-year old player with 865 career points.

The standout statistic, beyond the points, is Spezza’s time on the ice. Spezza played 11:33 last night, which dropped his season average to 12:46. This is after seeing 16:10 last season, which itself was already down from his career mark of 18:06. As a player without a regular role on the penalty kill, Spezza is always going to be susceptible to ice time variance, but that’s not what this is. Three minutes is a precipitous drop, especially for a guy who was an automatic, slam-dunk part of the team’s top six as recently as last season.

Furthermore, whereas Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were staples of last season’s 16:10, this year Spezza is seeing a much different mix. At even strength, Spezza has most commonly been deployed (either as a wing or center) with Mattias Janmark and Brett Ritchie (31.3% of shifts) or Ritchie and Remi Elie (28.2%). No Benn, no Seguin, and only a 5.3% cup of coffee with Alexander Radulov. On the power play, Spezza lines up with Martin Hanzal and, who else, Brett Ritchie (44.7% of shifts). New coach Ken Hitchcock seems to prefer Devin Shore’s energy on the first unit, or Hanzal’s net presence on the four forward set.

Including Ritchie’s tally last night, Spezza’s collection of linematves have not exactly burned any bulbs so far this season. Hanzal and Radulov (who barely counts) have each potted an empty netter, Ritchie broke his own duck in last night’s loss (with Seguin and Benn no-less), and Janmark has a pair of goals. Yes, part of the scoring equation is Spezza creating opportunities, but his deployment so far does not exactly portent an offensive explosion.

Bad luck has certainly been a factor. In the first game against Arizona, Spezza managed 7 shots without scoring. For the season, that number is 21, which is good for fifth on the team. Digging further, Spezza’s even strength PDO is an optimism-inducing 96, but then again, it was 96.9 last season. He’s also driving possession with a 61.1 CF%. Things could certainly improve in a hurry, but 11 minutes a night is going to mitigate the impact of regression in a big way.

Perhaps more than any other forward, it seems like Spezza has been displaced by the summer’s roster moves. Seguin is now less a hybrid and more the team’s true #1 center. Behind him is a cluster. While a player like Radek Faksa has seen change, at least he’s settled into a coherent role on a coherent line. Spezza, meanwhile, is in an odd sort of limbo.

Last night did start to see some tinkering with the Stars early-season combinations. In particular, Radulov bounced from line-to-line as Dallas attempted to climb out of a hole. Ritchie also scored, his first of the season, which could lead to a jump in conversion. Road trips can also spur line innovation due to the loss of last change.

Change is the byword. It just feels like Spezza needs a jolt. Whether it’s a refreshing stint with his old running buddies or a resurgent Ritchie potting a couple of goals. The hands are still there, as is the shot, and certainly, the head. He’s just a puzzle right now, and it’s going to be up to new coach Ken Hitchcock to figure things out. The upswing? With Benn and Seguin doing so well, unlocking Spezza could up-level this offense.