On June 23, 2001, the New York Islanders traded Bill Muckalt, Zdeno Chara, and the second-overall pick in that day's draft to the Ottawa Senators for Alexei Yashin. That was to be a defining day, both for the Senators, and for my fandom.
I was born in 1991, so I can't remember the Sens franchise starting. I don't remember Alexandre Daigle being drafted or being a bust. I don't remember drafting Chris Phillips. I have no memories of Laurie Boschman or Darren Rumble or Bob Kudelski (outside of NHL 94). However, by the time I could follow hockey, I was living in Ottawa and cheering for the Sens. I do have hazy, early memories of Yashin. I remember him being captain, and I remember him being good. I also remember that because of some business thing I didn't understand, he didn't play in Ottawa for a whole year. I remember him coming back, and Sens fans booing him at every opportunity. I didn't get it. Wasn't he a good player, for our team? Sure he left, but now he was back. I thought everything would be good.
I remember learning about that trade as a ten-year-old. The Sens got THREE players back for one player! That was good, right? A great big defenseman, some other guy (who, it turned out, couldn't score), and a first-round draft pick. The Sens picked Jason Spezza, who I learned was supposed to be awesome. He'd be better than Yashin, and would actually want to play in Ottawa. I was excited.
I was too young to hear anything about Jacques Martin's "boy playing a man's game" comments, but I do remember being confused when I heard he was cut. Wasn't he supposed to be better than Yashin? Looking back, I think this was part of what has hindered Spezza's career in Ottawa. He started off with a coach who valued experience and defensive responsibility, two things the rookie phenom didn't have. Maybe it was better than he didn't play his first season in Ottawa. Maybe he was too young and immature. But the idea that he could get 21 points in 33 games the next season, and still play two-thirds of the season in Binghamton seems ridiculous. That he played only three games during the 2003 playoffs again shows Martin's unwillingness to play a young "scorer". Kind of like Kyle Turris under Dave Tippett in Phoenix, I wonder if Spezza could have developed faster, could have been even more phenomenal, if he hadn't been mismanaged by a biased coach.
By 2003-04, Spezza was a mainstay for the Sens, and I was getting old enough to pay attention to more in hockey than just what team had won. In many ways, I feel like my fandom kind of grew up with Spezza. He was the Sens' top centre as long as I had known what a top centre was.
Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, Spezza was centring what was arguably the best line in hockey: Dany Heatley - Spezza - Daniel Alfredsson. They put up tonnes of points, defenses could hardly contain them, and the Sens would often score six or seven goals per game. It seemed only a matter of time until the Sens would hoist the Cup. I was young and full of confidence in this team. I was one of many who watched the Sens fall to the Ducks in 2007, only to vow that they'd be there next year to win it all. Little did I know that the wheels were coming off.
First Heatley wanted out, and I didn't know what to think. Then last year Alfie wanted out, and ripped out all of our hearts along the way. Spezza has finally decided to follow suit. I doubt many would have expected Spezza to be the last one to leave back in 2007. This team never made it back to the Cup finals, instead watching players leave or get older, and watching draft picks being traded away for countless rentals in the hopes of returning to the heights of 2007.
Spezza's career stats are quite something: 687 points in 686 NHL games, and 52 points in 56 NHL playoff games. The Senators had an elite centre through all of the prime years of his career, yet managed to do very little with it. I can't help but think that it was opportunity sorely wasted. After 2007, GM John Muckler was fired, and Coach Bryan Murray was promoted to GM. Murray then proceeded to hire and fire a bunch of coaches: John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg, and Cory Clouston before Paul MacLean. Failing to provide the Sens with an adequate level of coaching during a bunch of Spezza's prime years falls primarily on the GM. Also, after the departure of Heatley, I think Murray failed to find another winger with the calibre to play with Spezza. Alfredsson was an outstanding captain, but was no longer an elite winger. Milan Michalek was not an elite winger. Colin Greening was definitely not an elite winger. Failing to surround one of the greatest talents in franchise history with enough talent again falls on the management team. I think some of the biggest failures during Spezza's time in Ottawa came courtesy of management.
I think it's also fair to say that injuries played some role in the fact that a Cup with Spezza in Ottawa never came to fruition. Spezza only surpassed 80 games twice in Ottawa, and surpassed 70 games only three other times in the ten full seasons he's played here. It's also fair to say that lockouts played a role. Many Sens fans think that the 2004-05 lockout robbed the Sens of a great shot at the Cup, since most of their best players were in their primes. The 2012 lockout saw Spezza return from Europe hurt, missing all but five regular season games and 3 playoff games in 2013.
In my opinion, the Sens' use of Spezza's time in the capital ended in disappointment. I think I had reason as a ten-year-old to expect great things from this young guy showing up in Ottawa. He was quite possibly a generational talent, and the team's results don't reflect that. I view this as different from the departure of Alfie, because their careers began in different circumstances. Alfredsson was made captain when the previous captain wanted to abandon ship. The Sens were an expansion team who had yet to impress. Alfredsson ushered in the first time the Sens were taken seriously. I would view Alfie's time in Ottawa as a success, as he brought legitimacy to the franchise and became the most beloved Sens player in history. Spezza came along when the Sens were already taken seriously, and were expected to make the jump to being contenders. The Sens were always regular season heavyweights, but never made the jump to having consistent playoff success.
I'm not nearly as optimistic as I was as a child. I realize that Spezza leaving now is probably the right thing for the franchise. Production drops off pretty sharply for forwards over 30, and a budget team like the Sens cannot afford to pay him big bucks until he's 40. His return was only going to decrease from here. Cutting out all sentimentality, it makes sense. But with sentimentality, it makes me feel like the last decade has been a failure. Players like Spezza don't often appear, and the Sens should have done better with him in the lineup. The fact that they didn't is nothing short of failure. And letting Spezza leave is an admission of that failure. The Spezza years didn't work, so it's time to admit defeat and try something new.
The departure of Spezza effectively ends the era of the Sens of my childhood. I know that all the hope I had in 2001 was for nothing, that they would waste Spezza's best years, and that in 2014, I am now preparing for a new run with a new crop of young players. Spezza's departure signals the end of an era, both for the Senators and for my fandom. I'm hoping that the Sens can build around this group of talent to make a Cup-worthy team. And I'm sure there are young kids out there with child-like optimism, fully believing that Erik Karlsson can lead this team to victory. I sincerely hope that a decade from now, they're not writing the same article about the Karlsson years.