He is the most highly paid athlete in Ottawa, at long last appreciated by hometown fans who needed years to warm to him.
In his prime at 28, he is adopting a leadership role, likely the captain-apparent, enjoying perhaps his finest NHL season. He is a better-than-point-per-game player in an era dominated by swollen goalies.
But is Jason Spezza underrated?
One can make the case that the Senators’ easy-going centre man is taken for granted at times. The most productive player on a Senators team that stunned the NHL by qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first full year of a rebuilding program, Spezza deserves to be considered among the candidates for the Hart Trophy. But will he?
On his own team, Spezza is often overshadowed by the captain and ageless wonder, Daniel Alfredsson, enjoying a comeback season, and by the sensational breakthrough of defenceman Erik Karlsson, himself a Norris Trophy candidate (if not a Hart candidate).
Spezza is used to being overlooked. When the same experts who picked the Senators to miss the playoffs take long-range looks at Canada’s Olympic team for Sochi 2014 (assuming the NHL opts in), Spezza’s name rarely surfaces.
Perhaps, if he has a strong playoff season and continues his growth next year, Spezza will get the recognition around the NHL he is beginning to receive from those who cover the Senators. For now, he’s content with the steps he has taken as a hockey player and as a father and husband. Above all — and this speaks to his newfound maturity — Spezza is enormously proud of the team’s accomplishments this season.
Ironically, this was the first time he didn’t set personal, statistical goals for himself. In the end, he played in the most games since his 2008-09 season (82 that year) and scored the most points since 2007-08, when he produced 92 points while alongside a younger Alfredsson and two-time 50-goal man Dany Heatley.
Just to approach those numbers again is commendable, considering Spezza has often lined up with a rookie in Colin Greening, and a young shooter, Bobby Butler, trying to find his way in the league. It helped that Milan Michalek (Dany who?) was Spezza’s usual winger.
“Personally, I knew it was going to be a challenge, coming into the year, to be real good,” Spezza says, giving a nod to the loss of such key veterans as Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly. “I know I have to be good every night for us to have success.
“I’m proud more of how our group’s been able to come together. I think this year, maybe more than any other, I’ve worried less about individual stats and games and just tried to focus more on how to make us a winning team. Because of it, I’ve had a good year, and had good offensive success, good personal success.”
After missing 20-plus games due to injuries the previous two seasons, Spezza set one simple goal for himself — get as close to 82 games as possible. While Spezza did miss one game in the final week of the season due to the birth of his second child, and one other game because of illness, he was there every other night his team needed him.
The goals, instead, were team oriented: What could Spezza and the other team leaders, like Alfredsson and Chris Phillips, do to ease the way for the younger players? Or, as head coach Paul MacLean put it, to bridge the core group of returning veterans with the incoming bunch of Binghamton grads, coming off an AHL championship?
Spezza gives MacLean, whose “rookie” head coaching status belies three decades of experience as a player and assistant coach, enormous credit for pulling everyone together.
“We see ourselves as one group,” Spezza says. “We have a bit of a family atmosphere here, and the coaches have been involved in that. Guys have gotten along really well the whole way. We’ve found that our continuity has been what’s gotten us through the tough times.”
Role players know what’s expected and feel a part of the team’s success, which was also an important ingredient of Bryan Murray-coached teams.
“Paul has been phenomenal, brought a great outlook, a great approach, we’ve all bought in and it’s been a collective effort,” Spezza says.
Once, Spezza was annual trade rumour fodder, and if he weren’t earning $7 million per on a long term deal, he might have been dealt by now. Wisely, the Senators organization made the best use of its asset, empowered Spezza, encouraged him to take on a mentor role on a team now five years removed from the Cup final of 2007. Spezza has enjoyed the change more than he could have imagined.
“I think I was always a vocal guy and a leader, but we had a lot of older guys, too, that had been around,” says Spezza, Ottawa’s second overall draft pick in 2001. “It was more about getting yourself prepared (as an individual) but now there’s a lot more answering questions and being there for guys — having to draw on your experiences. I think we’ve done a really good job of kind of managing our emotions throughout the year.”
Someone asked Alfredsson the other day if this season marked his greatest achievement as a leader. Quickly, he deferred to No. 19.
“No, I haven’t done anything miraculous at all.” Alfredsson said. “Jason has definitely taken on a bigger role on and off the ice. Phillips as well. It’s been a fun group to be a part of, I think we all bring something to the table.”
Like the proud papa he is, Spezza finds it “rewarding” to watch the young Senators like Greening, Erik Condra, Zack Smith and Jared Cowen, etc. grow and develop.
“We try to make it a dressing room where guys feel comfortable and can speak their mind and be heard, and I think we’ve done a good job of that,” says Spezza, who was a younger player in the league than most of them.
Already, he’s a 600-game veteran, not old, but experienced, he says with a grin, a far cry from the 19-year-old told by Marshall Johnston and Jacques Martin that the NHL is a “men’s league.”
“I’m probably more grounded and even keeled than when I was a younger player,” Spezza says. “I think it’s helped me on the ice, it’s helped me become a better hockey player.”