On the cusp of their first preseason game of the 2018-19 season, The Dallas Stars are oozing positive vibes. A new coach, a new rookie phenom, and a new Tyler Seguin contract all undergird a firestorm of anticipation for this year, which will almost certainly not end up being disappointing like last year...or the year before that. No, really—this one might be different, we think!*
Autumn may be just around the corner, but September always feels like spring for hockey fans. New hopes abound, all driven by the promise of a different outcome for 30 teams or the same for one. Yes, there are a lot of good vibes coming out of Dallas after a smooth training camp in Boise, but that’s what teams always feel right now; this year really might be a wonderful memory in the making, unless you are the Ottawa Senators.
Still, whether you want to buy into the hope or hold it at a distance with practiced skepticism, you can’t separate the teams from their discrete components. To that end, one cannot talk about the Stars having a rebound season after a big disappointment of a year without also talking about Jason Spezza.
In case you were on a covert assignment in the mountains of Montenegro or something for all of last year, let Jason Spezza refresh your memory about what happened during his season under Ken Hitchcock:
“It was tough, it wasn’t a great year for me,” Spezza said. “I think it’s given me some fire, and sometimes you need that. Sometimes I think I can take for granted how well my career has gone and how easily I’ve produced over the years. So having a year where I wasn’t happy, that has put fire in my belly, and that might extend my career a few years.”
That’s what a player sounds like when he goes from being a consistent point-per-game guy or thereabouts for his entire career to lobbing up a brick-like 0.33 points per game out of nowhere.
You’ve surely heard the gory details by now: under Hitchcock, Spezza’s time on ice got slashed by over three minutes, he was outright healthy-scratched at times, and top power play time became a carrot dangling a bit beyond his 34-year-old reach for much of the year.
One can look at Spezza’s stats and decide for themselves what a reasonable expectation is for him at 35 years old. He’s generally been great-to-elite as a setup guy, and his goal-scoring in Dallas has largely been of the secondary variety outside of the insane 2015-16 season—let us all take a moment now to dwell on one of our fond memories from that season...okay, all done, thank you—but even for him, eight goals last year was a disappointment. More to the point, his 18 assists were a disturbing aberration all their own. Spezza had never dropped below 30 helpers in a full season, let alone 20. For goodness’ sake, Spezza still put up 45 in the rocky 2014-15 campaign the year he arrived in Dallas. So, for the millionth time, let us agree that things went sour last year for Jason Spezza in a heretofore unanticipated manner. Agreed? Agreed.
But we are talking about this year. And this year, Jason Spezza is saying different things, as you may have heard from Mike Heika:
“I’ve had great talks with Jim. He has great plans for us -- he knows how to win,” Spezza said. “He’s got a big personality and he’s a straight shooter, and I like that. I’ve had good success with coaches like that in the past. He’s a hockey guy and I think we can communicate well.”
It doesn’t seem a stretch to say that Spezza is commenting on his former coach’s more dogmatic way of doing things here. And we can forever debate whether Spezza’s play led to his depressed production and lessened ice time, or whether the signing of Martin Hanzal and any preconceptions Hitchcock had about Spezza from their time together with Team Canada had put Spezza behind the eight ball before the first game of the year. The two were not a great fit together, and it showed. Hitchcock wanted Spezza’s game to look a certain way, and Spezza never quite got it to that point. Hence, disappointment all around.
But, there we go again, speculating! We are not here to rehash that discussion. We, in fact, have brand-spanking-new quotes from Spezza to think about, thanks to our benevolent autocrat Taylor Baird, who was at training camp in Boise over the weekend. Taylor had a chance to hear from Spezza about how he expects the Stars to look under Jim Montgomery, and a couple things stood out. Behold:
“It’s hockey. It’s a flowing game. He’s preaching a lot of puck pressure. We’re going to have to skate a lot more than we did last year, there’s going to be a lot more pursuing pucks, and I think that fits our team more. He’s going to preach for us to be up on our toes and go in and try to create turnovers. That’s definitely been a theme of the first couple of days, to get on our toes and to close gaps quicker and to angle better.”
It’s interesting to note that Spezza is looking forward to skating more than he thought the team was asked to do last year, particularly considering how worn-out the team looked down the stretch, when the scoring disappeared and the goaltending faltered just enough.
The key phrase in this quote, to me, is “there’s going to be a lot more pursuing pucks, and I think that fits our team more.” One could read into this quote a fair amount, of course. Implicit here is that Spezza disagreed with Hitchcock about the system’s fit for the Stars last year, and even though Spezza was never outright rebelling or anything, it’s not hard to imagine that someone in that frame of mind might not have been quite as assiduous in doing some of the grind-’em-down, chip-and-chase things that Hitch’s system asks of its players, or at least in doing them in the way Hitchcock might have desired. One imagines that a veteran leader like Spezza—who, it must be said, never dragged Hitch in the press or anything like that—would feel stifled when his game is built radically differently from the system within which he’s playing, particularly when his memory of the highly effective 2015-16 gameplan was so fresh in his mind. Seeing a team settle for safer, reactionary counterplay instead of forcing quick transitions and stretching the ice through pressure and pace couldn’t have been easy on Spezza, particularly in a year when his own production was so off its mark. But I am speculating again, so let’s go back to Spezza for more:
“As a coach, you have your structure and then you have your small teaching points that allow your structure to work. So he’s got his small teaching points: skates the right direction, your strides in your end, what routes he wants you to take on the forecheck, and that’s what makes his system work for him. And another coach will have different teaching points that make his system work for him. So it’s important that we understand what his little nuances of the system are because that helps to play the system in the big picture.”
Again, Spezza sure seems to be emphasizing his appreciation of the communication style of Jim Montgomery, and he appears to be buying into what he’s hearing. He likes knowing exactly what is expected, and he certainly seems to be a fan of a coach attending to the details. Hitchcock was certainly a detail-oriented coach as well, but Spezza is, quite effusively, noting how clear those details are, and how much he appreciates understanding how they fit into the overall goals of the system. Or I guess you could just say, “it’s communication, stupid.” I am used to people saying that to me.
So, here we have Spezza looking forward to skating more, being given new and more details to attend to as regard his positioning, his defensive-zone tactics, and forechecking. None of these is a glamor muscle for a scorer, but these are things Spezza appreciates, or at least appreciates understanding. If you think Spezza was unhappy last season because he just wanted to score and Hitchcock just wanted to defend, you’re probably somewhat wrong on both counts.
One more nugget from Spezza drives this point home, I think:
“Every coach is a little bit different. I do see a little more the personality, and uptempo, kind of like a Bryan Murray was or kind of like a guy that gets in your ear a little bit and lets you know what’s going on. You can tell he’s got a presence out there, he demands your attention all the time, and I like that. I’m excited to play for him.”
If there’s one thing I hope is clear from all this, it’s that Jason Spezza doesn’t sound like someone opposed to an authoritarian coach. Any miscommunication between Spezza and Hitchcock last season seems more multilayered (and still somewhat opaque to fans). These things are true: Hitch’s system is a useful one as far as it goes—it can make teams more stingy and can allow a star player to flourish and score, as we saw—and Spezza isn’t a pariah. He takes ownership for his down year, and he’s looking forward to following a new leader. Every Stars player you hear from this summer seems to be, when you think about it. The new coach is the most important one, always.
So, I dunno, maybe there are reasons to be excited about the Stars this year beyond just the seasonal blooms of wishful thinking. Are they still probably a 95-97ish-point team with the talent they have, if nothing falls apart? I tend to think so. But then again, they were a 92-point team before 2015-16 happened, and then everything just clicked for a season and they terrorized the entire Western Conference. Things aren’t likely to change until they do, and the Stars have an almost completely new coaching staff with a new philosophy. Newer isn’t always better, but difference breeds difference. this year will be different, even as we all fear the same disappointment awaiting nearly every team, whatever form it takes.
Jason Spezza might have a better season this year, if for no other reason than because we have no idea what kind of year Spezza will ever have, or anyone else for that matter. a 20/20 season would be a rousing success for Spezza, and a wild card spot sounds perfectly wonderful after two years of golf and turnover. Heck, even 97 points* probably just means a wild card berth, but I’ll take a Stars team scoring more every day of the week over one that defends better, if for no other reason than because a team that scores is more likely to win. The Stars were 8-10-2 when they scored two goals last year. A few more goals would sure be a lot more fun to watch than just trying the same things and hoping the goaltenders stop a few more pucks at the right times while John Klingberg and Tyler Seguin have another career year apiece. The Stars, this year, will be trying different things, and Jason Spezza is Very Much Okay with that.
*Besides, the last time the team scored 97 points, it wasn’t such a bad season at all.
Jason Spezza is happier going into this year than one would expect a 35-year-old to be after a career-worst season. Nobody knows the future, but I’m more inclined to look at it with a bit of hope when I’m not the only one aboard the hype train.