Ottawa-12/13/02-Feature on the Binghamton Senators and their life in the American Hockey League. Jason Spezza on the bus. Photo by WAYNE CUDDINGTON, THE OTTAWA CITIZEN (For SPRT story by Ken Warren) ASSIGNMENT NUMBER xxxxx ************************************** Filter: Medium (Lab D&S: BRad:7/ARad:0) USM: Normal (Amt:200/Radius:0.3/Thresh:2) File Size: 9.68MB Original file name: 6D4A0032.JPG
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen
Rewind the clock to December, 2002.
It’s just past 1 a.m., and Jason Spezza is on a bus, part of a dispirited Binghamton Senators team making the 4 ½ hour trip home following a 3-1 American Hockey League loss to the Hartford Wolf Pack.
The 19-year-old has settled into a seat beside Binghamton coach John Paddock, directly behind the driver. They’re poring over video and Spezza is nodding as Paddock instructs him about having more patience and about maintaining better positioning on the ice.
“It was a little frustrating out there,” Spezza told The Citizen at the time. “I tried to do too much, trying to go end-to-end too much. I don’t think it’s a case of not working hard, it’s a case of having to work a little differently.”
At the time, Spezza was an NHL star in the making, good naturedly referred to as “The Franchise” by his Binghamton teammates, with big-league stardom expected soon to follow.The Senators star is a point a game player as the sun is about to set on his time in Ottawa.
Yet a dozen years later, even with a resume full of Senators highlights, it’s intriguing that Spezza has never escaped that cloud, never fully found the type of two-way game that is showcased routinely by elite NHL centres such as Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Los Angeles’s Anze Kopitar.
Thanks to too many turnovers and defensive zone mistakes, he has endured a love-hate relationship with fans and a succession of coaches from Jacques Martin, Bryan Murray, Paddock, Craig Hartsburg, Cory Clouston to Paul MacLean.
During Spezza’s tenure in Ottawa, he was always playing in the shadow of Daniel Alfredsson, whose complete game made Alfie a coach and fan favourite. When Alfredsson left for Detroit last summer, Spezza took over from the long-time captain who, fairly or unfairly, continued to be a point of comparison.
Ultimately, Murray said, it was the “finger pointing” which led to Spezza’s request for a trade, a wish the Senators are expected to honour at the NHL draft this weekend.
Yet when the deal happens, Senators fans will have to come to terms with the loss of a brilliant offensive talent, with spell-binding offensive numbers to match.
Spezza has 251 goals and 436 assists in 686 regular season games. He has another 17 goals and 35 assists in 56 playoff games.
Among active players, only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin and Jaromir Jagr have scored more than Spezza’s regular season average of 1.001 points per game.
Without Spezza, the Senators wouldn’t have had a first line centre to help them to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007. Dany Heatley would never have registered consecutive 50-goal seasons. Fans would have eaten a lot less free pizza and the highlight shows would have been forced to find filler on the nights when Spezza twisted opponents into pretzels.
Spezza embraced all the positives, but he wasn’t thin-skinned about most of the criticism, either.
Clearly, his days as a childhood model prepared him well for his days in the spotlight with the Senators.
From the moment Senators GM Marshall Johnston pulled off the best trade in franchise history — sending the disgruntled Alexei Yashin to the New York Islanders for the package that included Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt and the second overall selection in the 2001 draft that was used to select Spezza – all eyes were on him.
His first shot at making the Senators as an 18-year-old ended with coach Jacques Martin saying he was “a boy playing a man’s game,” as he was shipped back to junior. He bit his tongue when Martin made him a healthy scratch in the 2004 playoffs, despite a 22-goal, 55-point regular season.
He has joked about being the brunt of Bryan Murray’s biting sarcasm through Murray’s tenure as coach and general manager.
Spezza never publicly ripped MacLean, despite occasionally being benched late in games, including during the 2012 playoffs.
There was also no outcry early last season, when he endured the instability of playing with a rotating door of wingers, before the arrival of Ales Hemsky.
Now that he has one skate out of the door, it’s easy to understand Spezza’s frustration at being labeled the fall guy for so many of the team’s failures.
At the same time, an organization committed to cutting down on defensive mistakes must move on and try something new. So many years and so many hours of video later, Spezza has not been able to consistently add that extra element to his game, the one that separates the very best players from the very good players.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen