Monday, October 6, 2008

The Spezza Predicament

Jason Spezza is an incredibly skilled player. That is plain to see for anyone who's watched a few Ottawa Senators games in the last few seasons. His ability to stickhandle in tight situations or to make passes through seemingly impossible traffic makes him a very valuable member of the team--especially considering his chemistry with Dany Heatley. He was Ottawa's leading scorer last year, with 92 points (34G, 58A). But his creativity sometimes bring about negative results, and we witnessed that first-hand on Saturday night when Spezza lost the puck to Tyler Kennedy on the game-winning goal. But does Spezza's point-production justify his proneness to giveaways?

I can't answer that; it depends on what your priorities are as a hockey fan. More accurately, it depends on what Craig Hartsburg's priorities are as a head coach, and what Bryan Murray's priorities are as a general manager. Hartsburg made sure to state that the team has be be safe with the puck and make the smart play, so it's obvious he wants Spezza to be less reckless with the puck. And examining the contract specifics of Spezza and Heatley, you can sense that Murray is looking for something more from Spezza: while Heatley was given a no-trade clause from the start, Spezza's no-trade clause doesn't kick in until after this off-season.

The challenge that Spezza faces is nothing new. Since trying to break onto the Sens' roster under Jacques Martin, Spezza has been told that his game suffers from a lack of defensive awareness. Many critics, including Mike Milbury (not that his opinion means much) and Kelly Hrudey recently suggested that Spezza desperately needs to improve his game.

What is being asked of Spezza is not difficult. Asking a slow player to get faster, or a small player to get bigger, is one thing. Asking a skilled player to demonstrate some defensive awareness while executing offensive prowess is far from impossible, and when that player asks for more responsibility on the team--as Spezza has--they need to prove that responsibility is well-placed.

A positive sign is that Spezza has responded well to criticism and adversity in the past. In the playoffs under Martin while Spezza was trying to get into the league, he played very well. Returning from injury in 2006-07, Spezza was forced to play his way back onto the top line after returning from injury, and he did. Even last season, when Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson were out with injuries, Spezza changed his game to account for that. While he's failed to permanently understand the lesson he says he learned on Saturday (the one where you don't give away the puck with seconds left in overtime), his teammates and his coach will be pressuring him to adapt his game to fit into the system.
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