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Jason Spezza Is Going to Play Some Left Wing, or Something

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And he’s probably going to score regardless

Dallas Stars v Minnesota Wild - Game Six Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In Links yesterday, Shawn mentioned that Ken Hitchcock, in a recent interview with Mike Heika, has some interesting plans for Jason Spezza. Interesting is a mild way of putting it, but I was told to avoid hyperbole, so this is what you get.

Specifically, Hitchcock sees the newly signed Martin Hanzal as a center, full stop. This makes sense, given that Hanzal had said the same thing during one of his first interviews with Stars media. Clearly the Stars are not planning to move Hanzal out of center, because this is not a team that displaces great centers, as we all know.

Anyhow, here is the Hitch quote in full, pasted from Shawn’s transcription, which is an intense daisy chain of quote quoting the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was 12, relaying my dad’s tepid approval of my slumber party plans to my mom. Right, yes, the quote:

Q: How do you see Martin Hanzal and Jason Spezza in regards to the center position?

Hitchcock: To me, Hanzal is a center. The role Jason will have is a split duty role, and if I play Spezza on the wing, it will be a left wing. Jason will play a lot of center and some wing. We need to start with the puck, so he's definitely going to be taking draws on his strong side.

Q: So will Spezza and Hanzal play on the same line?

Hitchcock: Probably not. You could see Radek Faksa on a line with Hanzal. I think those two could fit well together.

-DMN

So, okay. “Split duty” is a phrase that could equally describe both Spezza and Seguin over the last season or two under Ruff, but the fact that Hitch is busting it out over a month before game one is interesting, to be sure.

If I wanted to get really granular and overanalyze some semi-extemporaneous remarks, I might say that the phrase “a lot of center” sounds as pacifying as it does promising for Spezza’s future at the pivot. “Some wing,” conversely, means either a low-to-moderate amount of time on the wing, or else the same amount of “some” as when your boss informs you that there is “some” extra work that needs to be done over the weekend, which is to say more than you hope there will be. (You are Jason Spezza in this scenario, which, if only.)

Mike Heika, doing his best to interpret the admittedly confusing Hitchcock remarks, envisions Spezza and Janmark on a third line, with Faksa on Hanzal’s left wing on the second line. You can see where he is getting this from, as it does make sense to have the shiny new acquisition playing top six minutes. Faksa can learn from Hanzal, presumably watching how he takes faceoffs and taking very good notes, since both players shoot left.

However, this leaves Spezza in a bit of a weird position on the third line (if indeed that’s how TOI shakes out), and it’s got me puzzled, too.

Just to deal with it up front: I don’t have any idea how or why Spezza would play left wing this year, especially if Faksa and Hanzal are on the same line. Who is a better option up the middle than a playmaker who can score like Spezza? I can’t see how Devin Shore or Mattias Janmark are surer bets than Spezza, and beyond that, you’re talking about Brian Flynn and Adam Cracknell. It doesn’t make sense to me, and you don’t need the obligatory line combos to see that. Spezza-as-winger only really fits from our vantage point if he’s on the right side, unless the Stars have decided that their veteran scoring center will be best deployed as an off-wing scorer for his age-34 and 35 seasons. Spezza’s salary is immaterial from a team-first perspective, but you do have to ask why the Stars would move one of their top-paid players, who has been playing largely like a top-paid player, when they don’t have to.

Perhaps Dallas has some data on Spezza that shows he is indeed better at left wing than at right, but I can’t imagine where that’s coming from; if I were throwing darts, I’d guess (and it is only that) this is primarily arising from some internal concerns with Spezza’s ability to hold down center from a defensive perspective. But then we’re back to wondering why he’s better on the left wing than on the right, again.

The other issue with Spezza at left wing (well, one other issue) is Antoine Roussel. Roussel, as a left-shot, would have to be put on his off-wing to play above the fourth line, and it’s hard to see both Ritchie and Pitlick getting pushed down the lineup to play Roussel on the right side.

LW C RW

Benn Seguin Radulov

Faksa Hanzal Ritchie

Spezza Janmark Pitlick

Roussel Shore Cracknell

That said, Roussel outscored Ritchie by three points in 18 fewer games last year, so maybe he slots in with Hanzal and Faksa instead. The point is, Spezza on the left wing really does make things complicated, which is why I am Quite Interested to find out what Hitch is envisioning there.

One blessed thing that seems clear is that the more defined role is Hanzal’s, and that suggests a level of priority—though again, we might be making much of mere offhand comments. If Hanzal is indeed to get more like 17 minutes a night to Spezza’s 15 or so, it would continue an ice-time decline for Spezza that is reminiscent of Ales Hemsky’s same decline over his time with Dallas, when he went from a 16 minutes-per-night player with Edmonton to a 13 minute player in Dallas relatively quickly.

Still, Spezza, during his three years with the Stars, has averaged 58 points (and 22 goals) per season. Last year was his low point with the team, when he scored 15G/35A for 50 points, which was third on the Stars. For a player who re-signed in Dallas fully aware that he would be getting secondary minutes from then on out, those are very good numbers. Jason Spezza, for any perceived defensive deficiencies, has made a very smooth transition into a player entering his mid-thirties who can still score without premium ice time. Maybe that means he’s perfectly prepared for just such a lineup transition as this. Maybe.

Martin Hanzal’s career best mark is 41 points (he had 39 last year), and he’s largely been in Cody Eakin career scoring territory during his career. In other words, you can usually count on something like 15 goals, 25 assists from Hanzal. All this to say that if Hanzal ends up playing above Spezza on the depth chart, it will certainly not be because of his scoring.

Possession-wise, Hanzal has been a very consistent driver of play, while Spezza had a weird blip last year (as did everyone on the team) after his first two stellar seasons in Dallas. And you’ve surely heard by now that Hanzal basically wins every faceoff ever, or like 56%, which is elite, while Spezza is “only” in Very Good territory at 53% or so. If faceoff percentages make you feel snug in your bed, then this number might be all you needed to put Hanzal up on the second line and be done with it.

All told, the basic issue here seems to be: is Hanzal’s defensive aptitude more worthy of ice time than Spezza’s scoring ability? And, surprise! Fans generally tend to prefer defense. And as fans who lived through last season, we would probably take just about any plan on the table right now that offers Improved Defense!, so long as it is Not The Same Plan As Last Time. Hanzal will surely be a huge boost to the penalty kill, and that’s sorely needed. He is a defense-minded player, and Hitch can work wonders with those.

On the other side of things, Radulov’s presence means Spezza will get called up to the Superline less often (if ever), so his time was always going to come in a secondary scoring capacity, whether that’s with Janmark and Ritchie (which would’t be as slow of a line as you think it will) or someone else, like Shore and Pitlick.

You could still be reasonably skeptical that Spezza will really end up playing third-line minutes, though. The power play is a mystery to me at the moment, but he’s still top-drawer at working his magic on the job, so I’m inclined to pencil Spezza in along with Radulov, Benn, Seguin, and Klingberg up top for now. With Hanzal getting prime PK minutes, it then comes down to which line (Faksa-Hanzal-Ritchie? or Spezza-Janmark?-Pitlick?) gets deployed more at 5v5. Of course, some might say that in determining which line is the “real” second line, 5v5 ice time is the only place to look at all, but people say a lot of things. Hitch certainly has.

And, here’s the shocker, that’s where I think Mattias Janmark will prove to be such an X factor, which is a sentence that has appeared in every single piece of writing about Dallas since May. If he and Spezza and playing well together, they will score. And if they’re scoring, even Hitch is going to give them some more ice time, just as Ruff did for Hemsky when he found some scoring chemistry with Faksa and Roussel on the third line. If Janmark does end up missing time (which is certainly a possibility), then you’re back to having Jason Spezza without a trusted defensive presence beside him, which seems to be something the team eschews these days. And that’s where a $7.5 million scorer that the team doesn’t seem inclined to give all that many minutes in which to score starts to become a really awkward lineup conundrum.

And hey, since we’re bogged down in semantics, let’s go whole hog. The “third line” is traditionally the checking line, and that’s where Faksa has played when Dallas has had things somewhat aligned (read: when the season has not been outright polluted by misery and misfortune). To turn Faksa into a second-line player now, with all of its concomitant scoring responsibilities, seems optimistic—particularly with an only moderate scorer like Hanzal. After all, even if Faksa/Hanzal end up playing crazy good Patrice Bergeron-level shutdown hockey (and that’s extremely far-fetched), you still need goals (which Bergeron and his mates provide). The other team is checking your team’s top line too, so the goals can’t always come from the top.

All told, I’m choosing to simply wait and see what Hitch does for now, since it will be interesting either for how he works out his stated plan, or for how he departs from it. On some level, this is in the “good problem to have” category, but on a more important level, problems are only good when they don’t cause other problems. If Spezza is still scoring at a 50-point pace with his new linemates, and if Hanzal and Faksa can score a bit more than skeptical projections have them doing, then this thing can work. Preventing the other team from scoring, as Selke voters have long-decided, is most valuable when you are also able to score at a decent clip yourself.

One last thing to note here is that Hanzal hasn’t played more than 71 games in a season since 2009-10—in fact, he’s averaged 57 games a season in the last seven years (while Spezza has played 82, 75 and 68 games in his three years in Dallas). So there’s a reasonable likelihood that this season will see its fair share of line ru- er, shuffling at some point no matter what. Hitch’s job, right now, is to try some things, and to see what works best. This (partial) plan is one of the odder ones I’ve seen for the Stars’ lineup, but Hitch will get some leeway, at least to start. Maybe Spezza will become a great scoring winger on his off side, and maybe Hanzal’s line will end up being a possession monster that chips in some goodly scoring as well. These are not impossibilities.

If we’re laughing at anything in April, we’ll be laughing about this. Hopefully we’re all inclined to some level of jollity when the Playoffs come around again. That’s kind of the whole idea here.