Jason Spezza picked up a point and a shootout goal against the Penguins Sunday, but started feeling back pain during the game. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
Photograph by: Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo, Getty Images
OTTAWA — Step right up, Kyle Turris, you’ve suddenly become the centre of attention for the Ottawa Senators.
You, too, Peter Regin. If ever there was an opportunity to re-establish yourself as a front-line NHL player, this is it.
While we’re at it, the door is wide open for Zack Smith and even 19-year-old Mika Zibanejad to take centre stage in helping the Ottawa Senators cope with the major blow they’ve received.
As the Senators flew to Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jason Spezza wasn’t with them. And they better get used to life without him.
Spezza, the club’s star centre who finished fourth in NHL scoring last season, is due to have back surgery for a herniated disc on Friday in Toronto. The typical recovery time is six to eight weeks, meaning he’ll likely miss anywhere from 22-28 games.
While the news of the back surgery isn’t a surprise – it had been widely speculated ever since Spezza failed to show at practice Monday and didn’t play in the club’s victories over Washington Tuesday and Montreal Wednesday – it is still a potentially devastating hit to a team that has roared out to an impressive 5-1-1 record to start the lockout shortened season.
Spezza wasn’t available for comment Thursday, but Senators general manager Bryan Murray says his No. 1 centre is “devastated” by having to miss so much time.
“We are hoping that he gets back in the latter part of the season and if we’re in the playoffs, he’ll be able to participate at that time,” Murray said at a press conference Thursday morning, before departing with the team for games Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes and Sunday versus the Montreal Canadiens.
Spezza, 29, has a history of back issues.
He also had back disc surgery following the 2006 season and missed games due to flare-ups in his back the following year. Ever since, he has periodically needed treatment to deal with back problems.
For all that, Murray says Spezza had shown no major signs of trouble before Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh and was in good spirits when he returned from the lockout following a three-month stint playing in Switzerland.
“He skated as well in the first three days of camp as he ever has,” Murray said. “It got a little bothersome on a couple of occasions (since the season started), and in the Pittsburgh game it seemed to come to a head. He doesn’t know the individual incident that happened. He went in on the shootout and scored, but he said he was being bothered at that time.”
On Monday, Spezza consulted with the team’s doctors and trainers. He then went to Toronto for further tests and opinions. It was generally accepted that having surgery now was a better option than a Band-Aid solution of trying to play through the pain and missing games and practices along the way.
“That doesn’t make any sense for him or us,” said Murray. “Hopefully, we get it cleaned up, allowing him to come back at 100 per cent and continue his career.”
The procedure is similar to the surgery that captain Daniel Alfredsson had following the 2010-11 season.
So, how do you replace a guy who scored 34 goals and 50 assists in 80 games last season and who has 228 goals and 393 assists in 611 career games with the Senators? You don’t. You just try to soldier on, trusting that the depth of the organization can carry you in the short-term.
The Senators will, as coach Paul MacLean said following Wednesday’s victory over Montreal need to rely on “scoring by committee” to succeed.
Turris, who has four goals and three assists in the opening seven games, will assume first-line status, a situation he describes as a challenge that top athletes relish. MacLean will shuffle bodies – Regin and Smith will inherit bigger responsibilities – attempting to find winning combinations. The timing also couldn’t be better for Zibanejad, who has already turned heads with his skating and his shot in two games since being recalled from Binghamton.
At this point, there’s no new call-up from Binghamton. Mike Hoffman is out with a broken collarbone and Mark Stone has a broken finger. And, as Murray joked, he’s not receiving much sympathy from rival teams wanting to help him out by trading him a point-per-game centre. All teams have injury concerns in the tightly-compressed 48-game schedule.
“I don’t think there’s another team that will call me when I go back to my office and offer help,” he said. “It’s not how we work in this business. It’s a big loss.”
If the Senators start to struggle and a centre becomes available on the trade market, Murray will certainly take a long look. Should the Florida Panthers remain at the bottom of the Eastern Conference -- they’re off to a 1-5 start -- Stephen Weiss will definitely generate interest before the trade deadline.
For now, though, Alfredsson says that with Spezza or without him, the mindset is the same.
“I think the coaching staff has done a good job throughout, last year, this year, no matter who plays, just go out there and don’t change anything,” he said. “It’s always an opportunity for somebody else. It doesn’t make it easier, but you’ve just got to go with what you have.”
Thanks to their quick start, the Senators have 11 points after seven games. In order to make the playoffs, the assumption is a team will need at least 52 points. If that’s the case, the Senators will need to play at a .500 clip the rest of the way to make the post-season.
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