How Karlsson, Spezza can still help from the sidelines

Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza may not be able to help the Senators out on the ice because of their injuries, but they can still add something from off of it.

Erik Karlsson has had Paul MacLean's ear. Now that the defenceman is injured, MacLean will still solicit input from him and Jason Spezza. Photo by Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen.

Erik Karlsson paid a visit to Bryan Murray’s office on Friday morning, just one day after having surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.

While the reigning Norris Trophy winner will be sidelined for the rest of the season, he was eager to see if he could offer any help to the team in an off-ice capacity.

The first words out of his mouth to Murray were essentially, “What can I do to help?”

So Murray is planning on inviting Karlsson to watch some games with him in the next couple of weeks from his general manager’s suite, which is perched in the 400-level of Scotiabank Place. From there, Karlsson will get an opportunity to watch the game alongside Murray and other members of the hockey operations staff. The young defenceman will learn how the front office evaluates talent on a nightly basis and he will be encouraged to share his own observations.

This is one of the ways in which the Senators will try and keep Karlsson and Jason Spezza engaged with the team on an on-going basis, despite the injuries that will keep them on the shelf for the foreseeable future. When star players are injured for extended periods, teams will often find ways to keep them involved so they can remain influential to the organization.

In the back half of the 2011 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins used Sidney Crosby as an “eye-in-the-sky” coach, after he suffered a concussion that left him unavailable to play on the ice. Each night, Crosby would head up to the press box and put on a headset that would allow him to communicate with the coaching staff during the game. If Crosby saw something that could help his team, he would relay the message to assistant coach Tony Granato on the bench.

“It’s not much different than what you’d get from Sid when it comes to seeing things on the ice, adding to our team and power-play situations. He’s a smart player, an intellectual player,” Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said at the time. “He often has ideas. Some are founded in his brilliance on the ice and might not work for everybody else. He’s also offering things in between periods, of what they see up there.”

The Senators now have the unfortunate luxury of having their two most talented and creative offensive players watching their games as spectators, just as the Penguins did two years ago with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Regrettably for Spezza, he has been in this situation, having been sidelined with long-term injuries in the past.

So 10 days ago, when he was in the press box attending his first game after undergoing back surgery, he was able to watch the matinee contest against the Winnipeg Jets with a critical eye from above.

In Spezza’s opinion, the Jets were clogging the neutral zone and not allowing the Senators to generate any speed with the puck, which is something they had not done against Ottawa in the past. In their two previous games against Winnipeg, Ottawa had scored 10 goals and cruised to victories on each occasion.

But on this Saturday afternoon, the Jets continued their trapping formula into the third period and squeezed out a 1-0 victory over Ottawa. The Senators could have used Spezza’s magic on the ice that day, but instead they will have to settle for his analysis and input from a distance until he is ready to return in early April.

At this point, MacLean isn’t planning on giving Karlsson or Spezza a headset like Crosby had for the Penguins, but he is planning on soliciting them for ideas. When he was an assistant coach in Detroit, MacLean and Mike Babcock would constantly be in conversations with Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk about ways to improve the team. He has continued that tradition in Ottawa, where he often has a running dialogue with Spezza and Karlsson during the season. So even though both players are on the sideline, he will make sure he keeps the lines of communication open.

“I wouldn’t call it an eye-in-the-sky, where they’ll call down using the radio and say, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that,’ ” MacLean says. “It’ll be more of a conversation we’ll have with them the next day. ‘Did you watch the game? What do you see? What do you think will work?’ ”

MacLean has made it clear that the No. 1 priority for both Spezza and Karlsson has to be their rehabilitation process and he will allow them to have input on strategy if the situation warrants. The Senators’ head coach is extremely happy with his current collection of assistant coaches, but understands that Spezza and Karlsson might want to contribute in other ways for the rest of this season.

“They’re still with the team — but they’re not really on the team and that’s the frustrating part for the players,” MacLean adds. “But we’ll certainly get their opinion on what they’re thinking and how the team is going.”

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