Over the summer I popped off about the disappointment that Ottawa Senators’ center Jason Spezza has been since the team snatched lottery pick status from the jaws of Stanley Cup contendership.
I said that Spezza hadn’t done enough to keep the Sens out of the basement — specifically, he wasn’t able to stay on the ice last year. But injuries happen, and I shouldn’t have blamed the guy for picking one up.
I then took it further, saying that Spezza’s once promising career was sliding into irrelevance, and that his uninspiring play almost led one to reconsider the 2001 trade that sent pariah Alexei Yashin to Long Island in exchange for (amongst other things) the #2 draft pick that was used on Spezza.
The ignorant rant continued with a reference to The Big Lebowski that could best be summed up by saying that Spezza was quickly and quietly succumbing to his fate as a losing hockey player. Interestingly, I started by saying that Spezza was “one of the few players I’m more tired of talking about than Phil Kessel.” (League leaders, anyone?)…
Not Spezza’s fail, my fail. I failed in a way that approaches the shouting distance of epic.
Jason’s succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations, at least outside of the organization. I will take a second to plug my recovery by saying that at our draft on October 2nd, I drafted Spezza relatively early despite what I wrote about him just over two months prior and the fact that he doesn’t hit anyone (those that read me know how much I hate fantasy leagues that don’t factor in hits or blocks). I don’t know why I picked him. Maybe I just wanted to believe that my summer attack would be a fantastic case of sports psychology, since I know he read the piece a dozen times.
Jason Spezza: “Hey Tram, eat shit. Who you calling a loser? Loser.”
But one thing is clear: Jason Spezza believes. He believes in his talent, he seems to believe in his body finally, and perhaps most shockingly, he really looks like he believes in his team. Let’s not push this to the side and give the standard line, “Every professional athlete should believe in his (or her… stop laughing) team,” because the obvious fact is that not every player does believe in his team.
And Spezza has every reason to not believe in his team. He has every reason to let the downward pressure take over and send him plummeting to the bottom. Every reason to say that he made a Cup Final and did his best, but now doesn’t have the support to accomplish anything on the ice. And he has 7 million reasons to look like he’s just playing for the paycheck.
Instead, Jason Spezza has turned in 11% of what is looking like by far the most impressive season of his nine-year NHL career. Sure, he had 71 assists in 2005-06, and 34 goals in each of the following two seasons, but the situation now is totally different. The Sens started approximately 43 rookies on opening night this season, and through the first six games it showed. Ottawa was 1-5, and had given up an astounding 30 goals in those games. But Craig Anderson has gotten it together, as expected, and Spezza has led the team to three straight wins.
Photo via bleacherreport.com
I unashamedly love this man. Craig Anderson might be hockey’s Gareth Barry.
As I said in that July post, Spezza’s talent was never in question. The man is a puck boss with great passing vision and creativity. What has come into question over the seasons since the lockout is his character and dedication to the team. Nothing seems to have ever been corroborated, but people closer than myself often cited a riff between Spezza and former head coach Bryan Murray during those successful years in the middle of last decade. I am not alleging anything other than that rumors existed. We do know that goalie Ray Emery was bought out of his contract in the summer of 2008, and we also know that Emery feuded with anyone from coaching to traffic cops. We also know that more recent coach Cory Clouston feuded with Dany Heatley, and Heatley was subsequently traded (albeit after Heatley’s own trade request). So, maybe the rumors of Spezza’s dissatisfaction with coaching were overblown or entirely false.
But even the classiest of players would probably look at the Sens’ lineup and sigh. Still only 28, Spezza is one of the elder statesmen on a team that is in no way close to contending for a Stanley Cup. Spezza is due to become an unrestricted free agent upon the conclusion of his current contract, but he’ll be 32 years old by the time that day comes. Who knows if his body will still allow him to play at a level high enough to crack the top six on a contending team in the year 2015 and beyond?
Given this circumstance, Spezza had three options: mail in the usual 58-game season, finish near last place, and make $7 million this year, embrace the idea of completely rebuilding the only franchise he’s ever played for and lead by example for a team that maybe, possibly, is three years away from the possibility of a conference final, or put in a trade request and hope to be some other team’s missing piece.
Proving once and for all that he is a true hockey player, Spezza chose the second option, and has been the key skater in all nine of the team’s games so far this year. Sure, they’ve taken a couple on the chin in blowout losses to Colorado and Philadelphia, but Spezza has scored on his attempt in both of Ottawa’s shootout wins, including last night’s game-winner, despite coming into the year something like 11-for-33 in shootouts for his career.
Those goals don’t count for stats, but Spezza’s doing just fine in that department anyway. He’s on the board with five goals and seven assists so far, which, if you’re wondering, is a 109-point pace. Will he finish with that amount of points? Probably not, but only because he’s likely to miss some games at some point. But after seeing the way he’s led from the front, I don’t think it really matters if Spezza misses some games this year due to bumps and bruises. Sure, a serious injury would be devastating, but minor hurts come with playing hockey, and this team isn’t scheduled to make the playoffs this year anyway. What’s important is that Spezza continues his inspiring play on the ice when he is on the ice, with the assumption that when this team is ready to ascend in a few years, their likely captain can be counted on because he was with the youth every step of the way.
By 2014-15, current captain Daniel Alfredsson will probably be retired. But that happens to be the contract years for both Spezza and Anderson, who by then will be playing for a new contract and with what many assume will be one of the best goalies of the next decade: Robin Lehner. If enough of the kids progress, circle that season. And when Ottawa’s golf season starts a month or two later than usual, remember that the first 11% of 2011-12 foreshadowed all of it.
Photo via crashthenet.ca
With Jacob Markstrom currently killing it in Florida, is fellow Swedish goaltender Robin Lehner now the best player in the world not in the NHL?
To wrap, I want to apologize for all of the negative things I wrote in July about Jason Spezza’s career trajectory. There were two more items from that post about the Senators that make me look foolish: 1) That I bundled Spezza with Kessel as players that I’m tired of talking about (Kessel leads the NHL in goals and points, while Spezza is second in points); and 2) that I wrote that Ottawa winger Milan Michalek “isn’t a top-six NHL forward.” Nice call, dumbass.
Anyway, I hope my good calls (Kari Lehtonen, the Dallas team, Ryan Callahan, Jacov Markstrom, etc.) outweigh the bad (Avalanche sucking, Canucks having the division clinched by the all-star break, Panthers finishing in 15th again) and that you look forward to some more calls throughout the season. I look forward to hearing your feedback.
And in case you want to read the July 25th blast I refer to in this post, click here!