Silver Nuggets: Spezza's Future

A concerned fan throws Jason Spezza his stick back after last night's game, deciding "Spezza needs it more." - Francois Laplante/Freestyle Phot

Could the Senators lose their newest captain after just two seasons?

In the beginning, there was THE TRADE. And it was good.

On June 23rd, 2001, the Ottawa Senators finally found their identity when they traded disgruntled captain Alexei Yashin to the New York Islanders for Bill Muckalt, Zdeno Chara, and the 2nd overall pick in the draft, which they used on Jason Spezza. Though Daniel Alfredsson would become the face of the franchise following Yashin's bitter departure, Spezza would instantly become its most important player, serving as the fulcrum for personnel decisions that continues to this day: At the root of all of the trades, signings, and draft picks are two possibilities:

1) The move is being made to support the 1C position.

2) The move is being made because continuty at the 1C position allows focus on other areas of need.

Once he began playing in the NHL, Spezza gave the Senators the kind of player teams spend entire generations trying to find. Since 2001, here are the first overall picks from each draft:

Year Team Pick
2002 Columbus Blue Jackets Rick Nash
2003 Pittsburgh Penguins Marc-Andre Fleury
2004 Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin
2005 Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby
2006 St. Louis Blues Erik Johnson
2007 Chicago Blackhawks Patrick Kane
2008 Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos
2009 New York Islanders John Tavares
2010 Edmonton Oilers Taylor Hall
2011 Edmonton Oilers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
2012 Edmonton Oilers Nail Yakupov
2013 Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon

The pattern is instantly obvious. Teams are looking for a franchise player. Spezza is a franchise player.

But something's happened this year. After having last season derailed by back surgery, and being slowed by a groin injury to start this season, Spezza has gone on to put up 16P (8G, 8A) in 17 games--and he's not even on the top line anymore. That role has been taken over by Kyle Turris, who is having an outstanding season in his own right--Turris' 18P (4G, 14A) in 18 games means the team has not one, but two centers playing at essentially a point-per-game pace. That's long been the standard Spezza has set for the team. Mike Fisher was derided as a glorified third-liner because he couldn't match that pace.

Despite the points, despite the C on his chest after Alfredsson's dismaying departure, Spezza is not having a good season. Non-glorified third-line center Z. Smith has begun to see more 5-on-5 ice time than Spezza. Last night, Z. Smith played 18:33 to Spezza's 17:56.

This was supposed to be the year Spezza finally carried the load. This was the year he would be surrounded by talent like Turris, and Bobby Ryan, and Erik Karlsson. The points would flow like wine--and they have. Yet Spezza has been rightfully supplanted by a better player.

Next year is the last year of his contract. His production shouldn't noticeably decline until the end of the first year of his new contract--his point production this year remains at the level Senators fans expect of a top-line center. Should he reach unrestricted free agent status, Spezza will get paid like a top-line center--his numbers will demand no less.

What do the Senators do with that information? Do they overpay in the later years of a retirement contract just to keep a franchise player? Do they trade their captain less than a year after naming him the captain? It was just last year that fans were raving about Spezza's leadership; now he is an incompetent pariah.

His game is off where we've seen it in the past. There's no denying that. Outside of Robin Lehner, Karlsson, Turris, Ryan, and Clarke MacArthur, most of the team's game is off right now. Spezza is under more scrutiny because of the letter on his chest. The points are still coming, and most teams would give up a lot to have two point-per-game centers in their lineups. There's no denying that, either.

Turris' emergence and Spezza's struggles have put general manager Bryan Murray in a position not even the best psychic would envy: A judgement call about the team's long-term future. Is this season a portent of things to come? If you think so, do you have the guts to sell high on Spezza and wash your hands of him before his next contract sinks your cap-challenged team? Is this poor play just a bump on the long road that comprises the NHL season? If you think so, do you trust in Spezza's natural talent and commit to him for the future, knowing that a Turris-Spezza combo gives your team the kind of center depth most others dream about? Good luck making the correct call on that. If you're wrong, you may torpedo the team for years to come. If you're right, you've stabilized it for the next decade.

Jason Spezza's mere presence has shaped this team for the past decade. Whether he stays or goes will shape the team for the next ten years.

Sens Links

  • Jared Crozier is disgusted with how fans are treating Spezza. I'm right there with him. [Sens Shot]
  • The Citizen has a post-game report with some quotes from the players after last night's 5-0 debacle against the Philadelphia Flyers. Want to guess if anyone was happy? [Senators Extra]
  • Bonk's Mullet has your tweets of the week. [RBM]
  • Robin Lehner does not respect Ray Emery fighting someone who has no interest in fighting back. [SE]
  • Milks want to see Bryan Murray make a move to shake things up. I don't necessarily disagree, but when just about everyone is struggling, who do you move? [Black Aces]
  • Wayne Scanlan writes that the Senators' goal last night was not to get caught flat-footed. I don't think they quite got there. [SE]

NHL Links

  • As bad as things look for us, they could be worse: The Buffalo Sabres have fired their entire front office. Darcy Regier will be replaced by Pat Lafontaine (!) and scapegoat head coach Ron Rolston will be replaced by Ted Nolan (!). [PHT]
  • Milan Hejduk is retiring. [iSport]
  • Carey Price is playing great and the Canadiens are still losing. I got nothing for this one. Fenwick? [Montreal Gazette]
  • The Vancouver Canucks are another Canadian team with high fan expectations that need a shakeup. Man, wouldn't it be great if every time you didn't like how your team was playing, you could just find some sucker GM to take your garbage in exchange for his good players? [The Province]
  • Raffi Torres is progressing in his rehab. Raffi Torres is also a dirty player, and I hope he never plays again. [CSNBay Area - Comcast KNOWS you want to watch this video when you click their page!]
  • Mark Schiefle would rather be a Detroit Red Wing than a Winnipeg Jet. Okay, that's not what it says at all. I'm just reading between the lines. I mean, Winnipeg doesn't even have any parks! [Winnipeg Free Press]
  • There was a ridiculous no-goal call in Montreal last night. Ridiculous. And in true NHL fashion, rather than admitting they made a mistake, they make up a phantom "incidental contact" situation--not even interference, mind you, just incidental contact--as a reason for a goal not being allowed. Andre Benoit can related. Never forget. [Puck Daddy]

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