He was a friend of my parents, interested in hockey, so naturally they introduced me to him. At some point he brought up Jason Spezza, commenting that he’d kind of passed his prime. I pointed out that he’d scored 30 goals that season. He was shocked. Even five minutes later, he was still shaking his head, saying “Really? 30 goals?!”
In a way, Spezza’s career was always haunted by Jacques Martin’s infamous words: “He’s a boy playing a man’s game.” His game was never appreciated, either by Ottawa Senators fans or league-wide. He was always seen as the weakest link on the Pizza Line, a guy lucky to be riding shotgun with two superstars in Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. A soft player, too prone to no-look drop passes and going offside.
Spezza was a great player, likely the third-best Ottawa Senator ever. He finished with 687 points in 686 games for the Sens, which included two years of minimal play under coach Martin at the beginning. His hockey sense, his passing, his skill was top-notch. He scored possibly the most electric game-winning goal in Sens history. He’s also put up the most mind-blowing assist in team history. There’s no questioning his talent. Heatley was a 50-goal scorer (twice) on Spezza’s wing, something he couldn’t accomplish playing with Joe Thornton, and let’s keep in mind that Thornton turned Jonathan Cheechoo into a Rocket Richard winner.
When it comes to NHL centres, the media seems to be obsessed with faceoff percentage. Spezza hasn’t been below 50% since 2003-04, and even passed 56% in 2010-11. That’s Jonathan Toews territory, only Toews wishes he could’ve scored at a rate like Spezza. I’m not saying faceoff numbers are everything, just that Spezza was good at more than just putting up points.
Having such a talent in Ottawa was definitely taken for granted. Spezza was the preferred whipping boy of TSN 1200 callers for too many years. Not many would’ve predicted him to be the last of the Alfie-Spezza-Heatley line to be in town. And yet he willingly took on the captaincy and threw himself into the role. Even his final move as captain, requesting a trade so the team could recuperate some value before he left as a UFA, demonstrated his desire to look out for the team. Not only was he a great talent, but he gave the team and its fanbase a lot of unreciprocated grace.
I think this indifference towards Spezza has affected Sens fans’ feelings on centres ever since. Kyle Turris players top-line minutes, faces top competition, and finishes top-30 in scoring by centres, and yet there seems to be a strong opinion that he’s an average second-line centre. People expect the top-line centre to put up 80 points per season, even though only four did that last year. I think being spoiled with a dominant offensive force that everyone complained about, fans didn’t realize just how good Spezza was until he left. Turris is about an average 1C in the league, it’s just that Spezza was a top-ten 1C for almost a decade.
What’s interesting to me though is that Spezza also never got that respect league-wide. His international play consists of three World Junior Championships and four World Championships. He never played for Team Canada at the Olympics. In 2006, he was a “reserve” despite finishing 8th among Canadian players in points that season, watching guys like Todd Bertuzzi (22nd) and Shane Doan (30th) lead Canada to a really disappointing finish of 7th place. In 2010, Spezza wasn’t even a reserve. I really started to notice this in the build-up to the 2014 Olympics. The first recruitment camp took place in the summer of 2013. Spezza was injured for most of the lockout season, but he put up five points in five games. Importantly though, he’d scored 84 points the season before, which was fourth in the entire league (third among Canadians). He also achieved this on arguably not a great team, with Erik Karlsson finishing six points behind Spezza, but then Milan Michalek the next-closest at 60 points. He didn’t even get invited to the ball hockey camp. He got a phone call letting him know he wasn’t invited. I don’t know what more a player has to do than finish fourth in league scoring to earn a shot at his national team. But because he never had a reputation as a top player, there was nothing he could do to shake that reputation.
We saw this reputation again when Ottawa tried to trade Spezza. We may never know what the Predators really offered for him, but the fact remains that there were 19 teams to whom Spezza could’ve been traded and zero of them offered a first-round pick. A season later, we saw two months of Andrew Ladd fetch a first-round pick and a blue-chip prospect (Marko Dano). Somehow the best offer Spezza fetched was Alex Chiasson (at the time, a bottom-six NHLer), Nick Paul (a B-level prospect), Alex Guptill (in retrospect, who?), and a second-round pick. Ladd has passed 60 points once in his career. He and Spezza were the same ages at the time of their respective trades. Sure, Bryan Murray’s hands were a little tied by the trade request, but I still find it remarkable that a near-point-per-game 30-year-old centre earned such a low return for a full season of his play when 19 teams were involved in the bidding. Ryan Kesler (just two years Spezza’s junior) got a first-rounder back, and he had a full NTC and only wanted to go the Blackhawks or Ducks. I could go on. I am still frustrated how little perceived value Jason Spezza possessed when the Senators finally decided to trade him.
At this point, the Stars might regret Spezza’s cap hit. It’s $7.5M. That being said, it’s only for two more years, so he’ll come off the books as Tyler Seguin’s presumed extension comes into play. Other 30-something UFAs like David Backes and, guess who, Andrew Ladd from a year ago demanded seven-year terms for re-signing. This past season, Spezza’s “down year” still beat Ladd’s by 19 points and David Backes’ by 12. Spezza is older than either of those guys, and will be making far less than either of them in two seasons. Nobody talks about the fact that Spezza scored 33 goals in 2015-16, 10th in the whole league, and tied with “goal-scoring phenom” Seguin for second on the Stars. Sure, he “only” scored 50 points last season, but that was still third on his team. Who knows what he could’ve done if the Stars had a decent winger to put with him?
I’ve tried to look back on his career and figure out why such a good player has been so underrated for his whole career. I think part of it has been injuries. He’s played 82 games in a season only twice. His back has troubled him for a bunch of his career (and may have been one reason why his trade value wasn’t great in 2014). Part of it may have been never being the biggest superstar on his team. He starred alongside Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley in Ottawa. Spezza became captain just as Erik Karlsson was emerging as a top defenceman in the league. After going to Dallas, Jamie Benn won the Art Ross Trophy and Tyler Seguin emerged as a top offensive threat. Spezza has never been The Guy. And I think part of it comes back to Jacques Martin’s early comments: “He’s a boy playing a man’s game.” Spezza spent his whole career trying to disprove the naysayers. No matter what he did, there was always an expectation that he could do more. He never indisputably proved he’d graduated from boyhood.
I expect Spezza will have a few more years in the NHL. At this point, he’s not going to set the league on fire. I expect he’ll still have a couple under-the-radar 50-point seasons, but he won’t challenge for any scoring titles. And when he retires, I think he will have run away with the title of Most Underrated Senator ever.