Jason Spezza: Ottawa's newest hero

Through the entire Dany Heatley trade debacle, one player has been relatively quiet: Jason Spezza. (Although not as quiet as Heatley himself.) As Heatley's linemate and close friend, Spezza will certainly be affected by Heatley's trade demand on the ice, and if I were a betting man, I'd stake a lot on it affecting Spezza off the ice, as well. The two players signed long-term contract extensions within days of one another early in the 2007-08 season, looking forward to being two foundational players in the Ottawa Senators future. Heatley is obviously no longer interested, but Spezza seems as committed as ever despite whathis good friend has done.

On Thursday, Spezza spoke out on the issue, and it sure sounded like he was part of this team through thick or thin:

I just hope that this doesn't stall our organization. We want to move forward, and if he wants to come back, then we'll accept him back and we'll be a good team with him. But if he doesn't want to be here, he has to let us make a move and get some players to replace him.

--Jason Spezza

Defenders of Heatley have cited the criticism he'd taken as a reason for his trade demand, but no one's taken more criticism in recent memory than Spezza. And yet, it's Giggles who's all for the team moving forward, and Heatley's calling it quits at the first sign of adversity. It's just yin and yang; For every villain that's made, there has to be a hero of equal but opposite magnitude on the other end of the spectrum. When Alexei Yashin was killing his goodwill in the community, Daniel Alfredsson kept his head down and was Ottawa's focussed leader. Now it looks like Spezza will be the next Alfredsson, and it's a role that he should excel in.

An interesting comparison between the two situations was brought up in Don Brennan's column for the Ottawa Sun on the weekend. The same way Heatley was given an 'A' and the leadership responsibilities that come with it over arguably better candidates--Brennan mentions Mike Fisher as one, although recent events show that Spezza could very well be another--so was Yashin made the captain of the 1998-99 Ottawa Senators, despite the fact that Alfredsson was so much more captainly. In both instances, the honourifics meant to placate the star players and demonstrate the value they possess with the franchise. In both instances, it failed--Yashin held out on the final year of his contract, and Heatley has demanded a trade.

Contrary to Spezza, Heatley had been relatively immune to criticism during much of his time in Ottawa, probably because of his international hockey resume and his ability to score goals in the regular season. Very few questioned Heatley's defensive laziness and softness on the puck, while simultaneously berading Spezza. It may be because Senators fans haven't spent as much time focussing on the weaknesses in Heatley's game, but whatever the reason, Spezza's been criticized since he started with the team, from staunch criticism out of coach Jacques Martin's mouth to intense hostility from some fans. Yet Spezza remains committed to his team, while Heatley has taken issue with the tiniest slight from his coach and demanded a trade because of it.

Jason Spezza is an incredible talent, despite the fact that he was snubbed for the Canadian Olympic squad. The knock on his game is that he has no defensive accountability, he makes blind passes at inopportune times in poor spots, and he's soft on the puck--all flaws that follow an 'immature' hockey player interested more in the glory of offence than the chores of defence.

In my opinion, these flaws stem as much from Spezza's ability to use Heatley as a crutch as they do from an inherent character flaw in Spezza's personality. For virtually his entire time as a full-time NHLer, Spezza has had Heatley on his wing, stick loaded and ready to fire a one-timer. Four seasons of such reliance would inevitably build habits, but no coach has had the guts to split the two up and keep them that way for any significant period of time.

In both memorable exceptions to Heatley and Spezza playing together, Spezza's been demoted, and forced to "play his way" back onto the top line. One was midway through the 2006-07 season, where Spezza quickly became the go-to player on the team with Heatley and Alfredsson out of the lineup and excelled in the role. There were also various points this season, particularly the first-unit powerplay Heatley felt so slighted to be left off of. Spezza can play without Heatley, and may very well play better if he's using his creativity to come up with new plays rather than ways to force old ones.

Whether or not Heatley is traded, his relationship with Spezza will have a new dimension to it. And, at least for the immediate future, Heatley's selfishness will be offset by Spezza's commitment to the team. And we will love him for it.

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