Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thoughts on Spezza

To say I have sympathy for Jason Spezza and his treatment by the fans and media would be more than an overstatement. He is a professional athlete who is being more than fairly recompensed for his abilities. He is expected to conduct himself with maturity and decorum in interviews and on the town, play flawless shift after flawless shift and answer for himself and his teammates when things do not proceed according to immense expectation. All the above is well and good, and Spezza himself understands better than anyone the level of scrutiny, judgement and expectation that follows a superstar in a one-team city. But while the criticism levelled at Spezza is fair to a point, certain accusations about his character and commitment often reach such absurdity that I feel compelled to defend the Senators offensive catalyst.

Jason Spezza is a weak player who avoids contact and plays like a pussy. 
Spezza is not a physical player and will never be one. He will drive a player when given the opportunity, but he will not openly search to physically punish a player when a better option is out there, such as taking the puck and steaming up the ice to relieve pressure, or taking the puck and burying it. He has blocked shots in the past, broken up 2-on-1s as the lone man back, scored shorthanded goals, stripped star players on the backcheck and dropped the gloves when prompted. He will never block 200 shots or leave an opponent lying in a pool of his own blood and vomit. I can't speak for others - I don't want all five of our players on the ice flailing around like dying fish trying to play goalie. I don't want my star forward forgoing a prime offensive chance to deliver a late hit on an irrelevant opposition player. I don't want my first line centre in the box because of a manly, heroic fight when the guy he took on was a fourth line scrapper. I want Spezza to lead my offensive charge, not be Volchenkov. 

Spezza giggling in interviews signals immaturity and lack of character.
I take particular issue with this claim. First off, I don't believe off-ice behaviour has a major impact on a player's on-ice abilities. For example, players like Jaarko Ruutu and Mike Fisher project as a bookish intellectual and a pretty boy off the ice, respectively, but one is a dirty pest the other a ferocious battler on the ice. At times it seems like Senators fans would rather have Spezza be a third line checker who spouts cliches than a first line forward who has a little personality. Spezza giggles when asked a playful question about visiting Melnyk on the back of a win, not when asked why he turned the puck over in overtime. Follow Spezza on the ice and realise he is one of the most intense, focused players on the ice. How he responds to a question after a game has absolutely no impact on what happened before nor on what will follow. 

Spezza is a defensive liability.
This is commonly heard from casual fans, or fans of teams other than the Senators. They hear criticisms of Spezza's play and translate it into him being a defensive nightmare who the Senators can't trust in their own end. This is not remotely true; Spezza's biggest issue is with offensive or neutral zone turnovers, which not only negate an offensive opportunity for the Senators but provide the opposition with a chance toward the Senators end. It is understandable to chalk up this offensive error as a defensive mistake, but it is far from the misconception that he is lost in his own zone. As for his actual defensive play, Spezza has shown great progress over the seasons. He is relied upon to take crucial faceoffs, including late in the game and in the latter half of a penalty kill. He tracks his man well through the zone, and has shown increased positional awarness over the years. He is also a deceptively effective stick-lifter and routinely uses his long reach to poke the puck out of danger. He does not have the aggressive or hyperintelligent defensive abilities of his teammate Daniel Alfredsson, but Jason Spezza is absolutely not a defensive liablity. 

Spezza has shown no commitment to improvement - he is the same player he ever was and will never get better.
Again, not remotely true but often spouted. When Spezza was drafted second overall in 2001, he was a one-dimensional offensive forward with limited speed, weak faceoff ability and no defensive acumen. After five NHL seasons, he has one of the strongest skating strides among one of the speediest forward groups in the league, improves his faceoff abilities yearly, continues to perfect a deceptively hard and accurate shot, has become one of the league's most proficient puck deflecters, and is routinely relied upon as a defensive forward to protect leads late in the game. Each season he has come into camp noticeably better, faster, stronger and more fit than the previous time around, and shows no sign of lessening this commitment to improvement. Spezza is a cocky player who has every ambition to be the greatest Senator of all time, a Stanley Cup champion, Hart winner and HHOF member; those who think he is not committed to yearly improvement to make these goals attainable, is sincerely mistaken.

The Senators should trade Spezza before his NTC kicks in.
Two words: Joe Thornton. The Boston Bruins are just now recovering from the loss of their young star centre, and even then are nowhere near the team they could be with his presence. Star-for-star swaps such as the Heatley/Hossa deal are the exception rather than the rule in the NHL - is a package including borderline first line centre, flawed prospect, and a pick worth the loss of the best centre in franchise history? Spezza has his flaws, there is no doubt. As do comparable players like Getzlaf, Staal, or Crosby. Senators fans witness Spezza on a daily basis and so view his flaws with microscopic focus. But Spezza is a blossoming player who is still working to balance the creativity of his brain with the realities of the NHL, and needs help rectifying the ambition of his goals with the practical steps needed to reach them. But he also an endlessly gifted, peerlessly driven, superbly committed player who is determined to bring the Senators to glory. And no half-assed package deal could ever replicate that. 


Meaghan said...

I totally agree with everything you've said, especially the part about how Spezza works hard to improve his game and has actually got better each year. Spezza is quite possibly the most unfairly picked on player in the entire NHL.

No One Remembers #2 said...

Thanks a lot for the comment. With Sens fans I attribute to a case of the grass always being greener on the other side, but he's even more disrespected by outside fans so I guess it's a universal problem.

It's nice to see your read my blog by the way, I am a big fan of yours. You need to make Toothless Tuesday a regular column. :p