"This is a man's league, and he's still a boy."
And so began a roller coaster relationship between Jason Spezza and the National Hockey League. A sensation in the Toronto area from a young age, Spezza had been in the spotlight for a long time by the time he was drafted and coming to an organization in Canada did not stop that spotlight. A funny thing about spotlights, if you are under one long enough, people are going to find something they don't like about you.
For Jason, early on, Jacques Martin wasn't exactly enamoured with his defensive zone play. Scouts weren't enamoured with his long, gangly, bent over skating stride. Last, but CERTAINLY not least, certain vocal fans on call-in radio were turned off by the no-look passes that occasionally created beautiful chances... for the other team.
After the jump, a look at how he has progressed since the early days, and an indication that his image may be changing for the better.
The lockout was a blessing for Spezza. He stayed in North America and torched the AHL, being named the league MVP and putting up 117 points. The following season brought a more wide-open league, with less clutching and grabbing and more power plays. More importantly for Spezza a new bench boss, Bryan Murray, had taken over the reigns of the Ottawa Senators and brought with him a more offense-friendly style. That worked just fine for Spezza. He scored 90 points in just 68 games that year, and would score 87 and 92 points the two years after. The year he scored 92, 2007, he also added 22 points in 20 games in the Sens run to the cup final. He was seen as one of the best young playmaking centres in the league.
However a few key things happened that summer, and everything changed. Spezza was up for contract renewal and scored a 7-year contract worth $49 million and a restricted-movement clause. This came before the days of super-long, front-loaded, cap friendly deals, and thus makes Jason one of the highest paid players in the NHL, cap-wise each year (currently 14th).
In addition to the new contract, the Lean Years in Ottawa began, and Spezza started having trouble staying healthy (no coincidence). The chronic back problems became an issue, people started calling for him to be traded, Heatley left, the Senators missed the playoffs and a rebuild began. Through all the chaos, Spezza remained on the team and started to transform into a more mature, complete player. Suddenly he became one of the the league's best face-off men. Suddenly he was out for the last minute of close games. Suddenly he could kill penalties. Suddenly he was the most obvious choice to assume the captaincy when Daniel Alfredsson decided to call it quits, something no one would have predicted in the early years (when Mike Fisher and Chris Phillips were more obvious options).
This year under (once again) an offense-friendly coach in Paul MacLean, Spezza is having a renaissance year. 72 points (28 goals) in 68 games puts him 4th in the league, ahead of celebrated players like Phil Kessel, the Sedins, Pavel Datsyuk, and many others. The best part? People are starting to notice. ESPN has him listed as an honourable mention for the Hart Trophy as league MVP, while local writers like Jason York also see him as a legitimate candidate. Nationally, Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail has written an article detailing Spezza's ascent to hero status in Ottawa.
It seems silly that a player who is better than a point-per-game in his career, who can create plays that leave you breathless, should need to go through the trials Jason Spezza has. It makes it that much sweeter to see him finally getting the recognition he deserves. It is happening slowly, but Jason Spezza is finally being recognized for what he is -- one of the best centres in the NHL. Finally, indisputably, a man playing in a man's game.