The case against trading Jason Spezza

Last week, there was an article published here advocating trading Jason Spezza to be considered. My initial reaction was shock, followed by rage, but since then I have cooled down a bit. However, I have also decided to present my case for why it would be a mistake for the Ottawa Senators to trade Jason Spezza.

The main reasons listed for trading Jason Spezza were that his production can be expected to begin declining with the drop starting around the time the Senators return to contention. While I disagree with the time the Senators will need to return to the playoffs and Spezza's output declining, this is mostly my opinion. So for the purpose of the analysis, I will assume that the Senators won't be a playoff club for three more years and Spezza's output will drop then.

Spezza compared to a likely return

In the salary cap era, there have been three big name forwards traded, and one of them was Ilya Kovalchuk on an expiring contract. The other two were Joe Thornton and Brad Richards. Thornton was traded by the Boston Bruins to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart. There would be very few people arguing that the Bruins won that trade. Brad Richards was traded with Johan Holmqvist for Mike Smith, Jeff Halpern and Jussi Jokinen. Of the three, only Jokinen has become a top six player, but only since leaving Tampa.

I don't think Sens fans would be happy with that kind of return for Spezza, so let's assume we can manage to trade him for a top-ten pick and a high-end prospect, which were the returns speculated in our previous post on trading Spezza. What will that return likely produce? Is it going to be an Eric Staal, a Blake Wheeler or a Mikhail Yakubov?

Since the NHL instituted the current draft lottery in 1995 up to and including the 2007 draft, there have been 83 forwards selected in the top ten picks of the draft. For the analysis, I have compiled the statistics of each forward selected in the top ten from Year Four to Year Nine (Click here to see the data). That is, from the fourth NHL season after the year they were drafted to the ninth season. This is not the player's fourth NHL season but simply four years in the future. For example, if a player is drafted in 1997, the stats would start counting from the 2000-2001 season (discounting 1997-1998, 1998-1999 and 1999-2000). Trading Jason Spezza for a draft pick and a prospect would obviously hurt the Senators in the short term, so I did not bother comparing the first three years.

For defining a high end prospect, I added the condition that the top-ten draft pick prospect must have at least played at least ten games in Year Four, or enough for the entry level contract to kick in. The reason for this is, a couple of years after the player was drafted, I would assume that Bryan Murray would pick a prospect who is less likely to be a complete bust by year four. Here is the comparison:

 

It can be seen that Jason Spezza is likely to be better than either player received in a potential trade for him, even 9 years from now. Compared with the average top ten pick, Spezza is projected to produce 40% more points over the entirety of his career. Even a potentially high-end prospect is likely to be below Spezza for the remainder of his career. One might be tempted, as I have in the past, to add up the points of the players and feel that this is greater than Spezza. However, by keeping Spezza, the Senators won't suddenly play with one less player on their roster. These prospects might turn out to be Hart Trophy winners, or they might never play in the NHL. On average, however, this would essentially equate to trading Jason Spezza for a future second-liner and a future third-liner. If the Senators do return to the playoffs in three years, they are going to find themselves without a first line centre. Thus, this would actually shorten the contention window for a player such as Erik Karlsson.

One more comment I would add is that while I used the projections from the original article for Spezza's point total, I feel his numbers would actually be higher. Spezza's worst season after his first full season has been 0.89 points/game and he has a career average of more than a point per game. Using a pool of players with three seasons of 0.70 points/game would result in many players that are not as good as Jason Spezza. This would further the gap between Spezza and a likely return. The Senators might find a number one centre from somewhere, but it is unlikely to be from this trade.

Spezza's trade value at its lowest

After the trades of Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Alex Kovalev and the expiring contracts of Pascal Leclaire, the Senators have no need to clear up cap room. With the cap expected to rise to $63.5 million, the Senators have just under $19 million in cap room with 17 players signed. The season after, the Senators have $32 million in room with 9 players signed and they have $45 million in cap room in the last year of Spezza's contract with only 5 players signed. They have plenty of flexibility in what they want to do on that front, whether they want to spend up to the cap in 2012 or they want to completely retool their roster.

Having no reason to trade Spezza from a cap point of view, I would also argue that Spezza's value is at its lowest. He is coming off a couple of short seasons at 57 points each. He is likely worth far more to the Senators than he is to another club. Things like his bigger leadership role, his importance to the penalty kill are likely more noticeable to the Senators than a club who wouldn't have a chance to scout him before making a trade. If Spezza is to put forward another season around 60-65 points, his trade value likely won't diminish too much from what it is now. However, if he stays healthy, and puts up 85-90 points while the Senators finish in the bottom five again, then maybe the Senators can consider trading him for a higher return. Sure, Spezza could put up 40 points next season too, and in the process kill his trade value, but in my opinion that is far less likely than him having a dominating season.

Losing Spezza's impact on the young players

If the Senators are to lose Spezza for a draft pick and a prospect, they will have lost their top three centres in just a few months. This will require either Stephane Da Costa, Peter Regin, or one of the draft picks to play on the first line centre position (barring the acquisition of another first-line centre). This would put a huge amount of pressure, perhaps too much, on a young player. In addition to this, it would also have a negative impact on Bobby Butler and Colin Greening. All six of Greening's goals were scored while playing on a line with Jason Spezza, while seven out of Bobby Butler's ten goals were scored while playing on Jason Spezza's line.

If the current run by the Binghamton Senators has put the club's prospects into a culture of winning, trading Spezza would offset that as they would be very likely to be among the NHL's worst clubs for a few years.

The current state of the Senators

If the Senators were considering trading Spezza, it would imply they want to totally gut the club's veterans and start afresh. This does not then reconcile with re-signing Chris Phillips or Craig Anderson. While Spezza wasn't spectacular for the entire season, he was still 11th among NHL centres in points-per-game this season. I would argue that Spezza's impact on Butler or Greening is greater than Phillips' with one of the club's young defenders. As for Anderson, signing him to a four-year extension would suggest that the club is not conceding the next few seasons.

So what are the Senators needs? As it stands, including Spezza, the Senators have a number one centre, they have one top-six winger in Milan Michalek and hope to have another in Bobby Butler. Daniel Alfredsson is nearing the end of his career, but if he can stay healthy he is likely another top-six, if not top-line, winger, and the Senators do have two first-round picks coming up, the highest being sixth overall. While that player is unlikely to be of Spezza's calibre, that is another potential top-six player in a few years. If this player is a winger, playing with Jason Spezza can only help his development into the league. If the player is a centre, being able to play some what sheltered minutes on the second line would also be beneficial. The Senators' system is filled with good third- and fourth-line players so there isn't a need there.

On defence, while the Senators are loaded with defensive prospects, it remains to be seen how they will perform. But in terms of potential, they do have two highly regarded prospects in David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, as well as a proven NHL star in Erik Karlsson. They also have a goaltender in whom they had enough trust to give a four-year contract. If Craig Anderson can perform, they should at least have slightly better than average goaltending, even if we can't expect him to continue playing as he finished last season. Behind Anderson, they also have Robin Lehner for the future.

So, what the Senators need is a first-line winger. By trading Spezza, they would need a first-line winger and a first-line centre. Considering how hard it is to get one top-three player, now the Senators would have to find two of these players.

Conclusion

As all of us fans watched this season, we watched Jason Spezza develop into a solid penalty killer, while still amazing us with his incredible offensive skill. We also saw Spezza's determination to return from injury to a club in the bottom of the league's standings. It is apparent that Spezza cares for the club and he wants to be a part of the solution. His strong play down the stretch this season, along with Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson, gave the fans hope for the future.

If he remains on the club, there are few doubts that he will be the next captain of the Ottawa Senators. If he is to leave, there are no obvious choices, especially if Chris Phillips' minutes decline into the later years of his contract.

No player is untradable, everyone has a price. I am sure there is some combination of assets that if offered, would entice the Washington Capitals into trading Alex Ovechkin or the Pittsburgh Penguins into trading Sidney Crosby. However, given what is likely to be the return on Jason Spezza, given what he means to the club, given the effect Spezza has on the club's younger players, and given the Senators current assets and their recent decisions, it would be a huge mistake to trade Jason Spezza.

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