Senators Alphabet: S is for Spezza

Apr 5, 2012; Ottawa, ON, CAN; Ottawa Senators center Jason Spezza (19) skates with the puck on a breakaway in the third period against the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place. The Bruins defeated the Senators, 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-US PRESSWIRE

S is for Spezza, as in Jason Spezza, Ottawa's #19. Spezza has been the Senators' number one centre for the better part of a decade and during that time he has built a reputation as a highly-skilled offensive player who makes the impossible look easily. However, his offensive gifts sometimes lead to Spezza taking chances, too often for many Sens fans. The infamous "Spezza Drop Pass" has, at times, infuriated even the most ardent Spezza supporters.

Spezza's defensive game was blasted by Jacques Martin as a rookie and frustrated successive coaches. But over the past few years, Spezza's game has evolved. His faceoff skills improved, he started killing penalties, and he found himself on the ice during the last seconds of tight games. A more mature Spezza was developing a two-way game. Many pointed out the comparison to Steve Yzerman, who had to adapt from a purely offensive threat early in his career, to a strong two-way player before Detroit enjoyed the success of three Stanley Cup victories under his captaincy. But is Spezza at Stevie Y's level?

More importantly, how does Jason Spezza's defensive play compare against other dominant, two-way centres in the game? I'm going to look at the last three Selke Trophy winners and finalists with a specific focus on their defensive stats. There's no formula for creating a Selke winner, there's no one statistic that elevates one player over his peers, but a closer examination of real time stats should help determine what makes an elite defensive forward.

Traditionally, this has been an award for checking-specialists. Bob Gainey, who won the award in its first four years, averaged 37 points a season in the seasons he won the award and that was in the high-scoring 1970s and 1980s. Guy Carbonneau, a winner in 1987-88, 1988-89, and 1991-92, averaged 44 points a season when he won. Jere Lehtinen, another three-time winner in 1997-98, 1998-99, and 2002-03, averaged 47 points a season. While there have been some exceptions to this trend, especially during the highflying 80s, generally the best defensive forward in the league can chip in offensively but his real value has been his defensive game. Out of 33 Selke winners, only two players have recorded seasons of 100 points or more (Doug Gilmour in 1992-93 and Sergei Fedorov in 1993-94 and 1995-96). Prior to the lockout, the award was evenly distributed between centres and wingers (16 centres and 11 wingers).

Since the lockout, Selke voting seems to have changed. In the past six years, only centres have won the award, averaging 83 points a season and never scoring less than 70 in one year. Voters value a different type of forward now: one who takes important draws, controls the action, and plays a 200 foot game down the middle of the ice. Jason Spezza will never be a Bob Gainey, but his game is looking more and more like this new kind of Selke winner.

I'll be looking at standard offensive stats as well as Hits, BkS (blocked shots), GvA (giveaways), TkA (takeaways), FOW (faceoffs won), FOL (faceoffs lost), OFW (offensive faceoffs won), OFL (offensive faceoffs lost), DFW (defensive faceoffs won), DFL (defensive faceoffs lost) NFW (neutral zone faceoffs won), NFL (neutral zone faceoffs lost), FO% (faceoff winning%) %Tm (% of team's faceoffs taken), Corsi Rel QoC (Corsi relative quality of competition), and OZS% (offensive zone starts). These stats will be grouped by year (2008-09: Datsyuk, winner; M. Richards, 2nd; Kesler, 3rd; 2009-10: Datsyuk, winner; Kesler, 2nd; J. Staal, 3rd; 2010-11: Kesler, winner; Toews, 2nd; Datsyuk, 3rd), with the addition of their totals from the 2011-12 and compared with Jason Spezza's statistics from 2008-09 to 2011-12.

2008-09:

PLAYER GP G A PTS +/- Cor Rel QoC OZS% HITS BkS GvA TkA
Pavel Datsyuk 81 32 65 97 +34 0.597 52.1 76 33 50 89
Mike Richards 79 30 50 80 +22 0.948 40.2 147 90 94 83
Ryan Kesler 82 26 33 59 +8 1.265 51.3 72 70 30 74
Jason Spezza 82 32 41 73 -14 0.198 52.9 26 22 81 73

2009-10:

PLAYER GP G A PTS +/- Cor Rel QoC OZS% HITS BkS GvA TkA
Pavel Datsyuk 80 27 43 70 +17 0.554 50.4 89 33 73 132
Ryan Kesler 82 25 50 75 +1 0.896 45.1 95 73 28 83
Jordan Staal 82 21 28 49 +19 0.903 50.8 121 41 31 41
Jason Spezza 60 23 34 57 0 0.843 54.7 23 11 58 39

2010-11:

PLAYER GP G A PTS +/- Cor Rel QoC OZS% HITS BkS GvA TkA
Ryan Kesler 82 41 32 73 +24 0228 50.0 124 80 21 65
Jonathan Toews 80 32 44 76 +25 0.425 62.1 74 28 30 93
Pavel Datsyuk 56 23 36 59 +11 1.175 47.7 54 20 38 71
Jason Spezza 62 21 36 57 -7 0.701 47.5 14 24 62 52

2011-12:

PLAYER GP G A PTS +/- Cor Rel QoC OZS% HITS BkS GvA TkA
Ryan Kesler 77 22 27 49 +11 0.581 48.0 108 59 20 43
Jonathan Toews 59 29 28 57 +17 1.011 64.7 59 32 25 82
Pavel Datsyuk 70 19 48 67 +21 1.162 55.5 76 30 40 94
Jordan Staal 62 25 25 50 +11 1.461 47.8 101 23 26 38
Mike Richards 74 18 26 44 +3 0.909 50.2 112 38 42 40
Jason Spezza 80 34 50 84 +11 0.281 59.3 28 23 83 64

What does this tell us?

For one thing, Jason Spezza does not hit. At all. Even four time Lady Byng Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk routinely out hits him. However, this kind of physical play is most likely still prized by those who vote for the Selke Trophy. Spezza also does not block shots. But outside of Ryan Kesler, most of these forwards don't block shots with any real frequency. Spezza more than holds his own when takeaways are examined, especially this year. Jason still gives the puck away far more than any player on this list. However, with the exception of Pavel Datsyuk, Spezza is also the most offensively creative player on the list. Datsyuk's GvA/TkA ratio is simply crazy, but when compared against other elite playmakers, Spezza's ratio seems more acceptable (In 2011-12: Malkin's GvA/TkA ratio is 73/52 in 75 games; Crosby's is 15/10 in 22 games; H. Sedin's is 37/31 in 82; and Thornton's is 95/96 in 82 games). It also shows us that while all of these players faced tough competition, the winners were not the players who faced the other team's best most often, but they were the ones who made the most of their time on the ice. Consequently, Spezza is not quite on par defensively, yet his play is not as far behind these elite defensive forwards as we might have thought.

One area of Spezza's game that has noticeably improved in recent seasons is his faceoff ability. You can't watch a game without being shown faceoff percentage numbers. For those who advocate that the best defense is a good offense, winning the puck off the draw goes a long way when playing a puck control game. Let's look at the draws these players took over the same period to see where Spezza fits in.

2008-09:

PLAYER FOW FOL OFW OFL DFW DFL NFW NFL FO% %TM Cor Rel
Pavel Datsyuk 636 499 167 145 167 120 226 195 56.0 23.9 11.0
Mike Richards 813 847 153 158 211 251 251 232 49.0 34.9 1.1
Ryan Kesler 527 449 154 131 223 155 209 181 54.0 20.6 6.1
Jason Spezza 787 690 174 164 172 129 228 225 53.3 32.4 7.1

2009-10:

PLAYER FOW FOL OFW OFL DFW DFL NFW NFL FO% %TM Cor Rel
Pavel Datsyuk 590 480 196 158 193 156 203 203 55.1 23.9 9.9
Ryan Kesler 772 629 159 148 214 185 214 185 55.1 29.5 11.0
Jordan Staal 639 685 132 169 141 151 232 218 48.3 27.8 7.9
Jason Spezza 514 504 127 124 107 101 151 178 50.5 30.3 -5.0

2010-11:

PLAYER FOW FOL OFW OFL DFW DFL NFW NFL FO% %TM Cor Rel
Ryan Kesler 859 637 222 172 225 169 206 147 57.4 30.9 18.2
Jonathan Toews 937 716 248 192 153 115 234 218 56.7 35.5 14.3
Pavel Datsyuk 429 356 111 109 130 111 158 152 54.6 23.8 9.1
Jason Spezza 681 529 128 112 153 112 193 155 56.3 35.7 5.4

2011-12:

PLAYER FOW FOL OFW OFL DFW DFL NFW NFL FO% %TM Cor Rel
Ryan Kesler 714 619 182 168 210 169 221 158 53.6 29.7 11.2
Jonathan Toews 675 462 192 130 103 73 173 144 59.4 33.4 14.6
Pavel Datsyuk 696 539 182 154 165 104 203 190 56.4 32.1 13.2
Jordan Staal 577 562 128 105 144 110 181 194 50.6 30.5 4.8
Mike Richards 531 513 161 158 161 155 162 184 50.9 25.7 -15.4
Jason Spezza 902 782 255 244 190 152 282 219 53.6 35.8 6.0

What do these tables indicate?

Spezza's faceoff skills have improved and are a major contribution to his team. With a few exceptions, most of these players are in the upper echelon of the league when it comes to taking draws successfully. Mid to high 50s is great for faceoff percentage and with the exception of his difficult and injury plagued 2009-10 season (it's hard to win a faceoff when you have a bad back), Spezza is right there with these players. Before I looked at the numbers I assumed Spezza would be more effective in the faceoff circle in the offensive zone: he's an offensive player who is always looking to start the play and that begins with the draw. Yet Spezza's offensive zone faceoff percentage is actually his lowest of the three zones: 51.5% 2008-09, 50.6% in 2009-10, 53.3% in 2010-11, and 51.1% in 2011-12.

Where does Spezza excel on the draw? In the defensive zone and in the neutral zone. In the defensive zone, Spezza is consistently excellent on draws: 57.1% in 2008-09, 51.4% in 2009-10, 57.7% in 2010-11, and 55.6% in 2011-12. Spezza has improved his draw taking in the neutral zone as well: 50.3% in 2008-09, 45.9% in 2009-10, 55.5% in 2010-11, and 56.2% in 2011-12. To put that in perspective, in 2011-12 Spezza matched former Selke winner Ryan Kesler in defensive zone faceoff percentage (55.6% for Spezza and 55.4% for Kesler). In the neutral zone, only Kesler had a better percentage (58.3% for Kesler, 56.2% for Spezza). In this zone, Spezza was considerably better than Datsyuk (51.9%), Staal (48.3%), and Richards (46.8%).

It's worth pointing out that out all six players, Spezza faced the easiest competition in 2011-12. But in 2010-11, when Spezza faced the second toughest opposition out the four players compared for that year, he still had the highest faceoff percentage in the defensive zone (57.7% for Spezza, 57.1% for both Kesler and Toews, and 53.9% for Datsyuk). In that same season, only Kesler had a better faceoff percentage in the neutral zone (58.4% for Kesler, 55.5% for Spezza, 51.8% for Toews, 51.0% for Datsyuk); however, Kesler played against easier competition (0.701 Corsi Rel QoC for Spezza, 0.228 Corsi Rel QoC for Kesler).

Significantly, Spezza is able to maintain these high percentages despite taking considerably more draws than other centres. Spezza took 1684 draws in 2011-12. That's 351 more than the nearest centre in the group, Ryan Kesler (1333). While many of these centres missed considerable time this season (negatively impacting their draw totals), Spezza still averages 2 faceoffs more per game than his nearest competitor (Spezza averages 21.3 FO/G, Toews 19.3 FO/G, Staal 18.7 FO/G, Datsyuk 17.9 FO/G, Kesler 17.5 FO/G, Richards 14.5 FO/G). Consistently taking significantly more draws per game than your opposition is exhausting and yet it doesn't slow Spezza down. The last two seasons he's taken 35.6% and 35.7% of his team's draws respectively. Out of the 18 individual seasons I looked at, those are the highest totals in that category.

Ultimately, I am not suggesting Spezza should be nominated for the Selke Trophy this season, nor am I prophesizing that he will win one late in his career like Steve Yzerman. What I am saying is that there is tangible evidence that not only is he an extremely gifted offensive player who is defensively responsible, he can excel when placed in defensive situations.

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