In a yet-to-be-released THN special feature, The Hockey News’ staff is set to appease hockey fans who like lists by riddling off the names of the top 100 players of all-time, broken down by the top 20 players at each position. In conjunction with this list, a self-proclaimed panel of experts will also name the greatest starting lineup for all 30 NHL franchises. I bet fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets are giddy in anticipation.
While the feature seems like an easy way to sell some copies, THN did note that one of the more contentious discussions that they had was determining who Ottawa’s greatest center of all-time is
. The only problem is that instead of giving their online readers a glimpse into who they deemed was worthy of the title, they chose to leave us twisting in the wind in hopes that we’d actually invest in this special feature magazine when it becomes available for purchase. Fortunately for the readers of this website, I will to break it down for you for three reasons: one, you shouldn’t have to wait to find out who’s the better player; two, it’s the THN, odds are they’ll probably get it wrong; and three, it’s free.
So without further ado.
Before being dealt to the New York Islanders at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Alexei Yashin totalled 218 goals and 491 points with the Senators. Good enough for the modern franchise lead that has since been broken by Daniel Alfredsson. With 218 goals and 491 points to his credit, his numbers are good for second on Ottawa’s all-time list, eclipsing Spezza’s 171 goals and 475 points. Although it should be noted, as The Hockey News astutely points out, that Spezza’s points-per game average is higher than that of Yashin. Yet in all their mathematical glory, they were one-hundredth off as Spezza has actually averaged 1.03 points-per-game to Yashin’s 0.97.
Yashin’s worst statistical season in Ottawa was the 1995-96 season in which he missed the bulk of the season due to a contract holdout. Spezza’s worst statistical came after he was accused by Jacques Martin of being a boy in a man’s league. While Yashin and Spezza both share three 30-goal seasons, Yashin has two 40-goal campaigns to Spezza’s none. From an assist perspective, Spezza not only surpasses Yash’s totals — 304 to 273 — he shatters Yash’s best mark for assists in one season by a whopping 21 helpers. So who’s the better offensive player? Yash or Spezza?
When examining the numbers, The Hockey News believes that nothing is settled there.
Nothing is settled there? Talk about a cop out. The nothing is settled there answer is shallower than the John Muckler’s pool of prospects who actually panned out. It’s time to dig a little deeper here.
What about the quality of the teams that they played for?
When Yash first burst onto the scene, the Senators were terrible. They were coming off one of the worst NHL seasons in history and they had a first line that featured Bob Kudelski and Sly Turgeon. The team had dealt its enforcer (Mike Peluso) and their first string goalie (Peter Sidorkiewicz) who had experienced a traumatic neck injury in one of the team’s final games. (Ed. note: When a team like New Jersey is willing to move pieces for a goaltender who was coming off a serious neck injury, it probably should raise red flags about the package coming back in return. Just saying…) Anyways, I digress. It took years of poor play and early draft picks before the organization could climb its way up the ladder to respectability. Yet, despite the amount of inferior talent surrounding him, Yashin still managed to put up some impressive numbers during the team’s formative years.
Here’s a look at the team’s record during Yashin’s tenure:
- 1993-94: 14 wins, 61 losses, 9 ties, 37 pts
- 1994-95: 9 wins, 34 losses, 5 ties, 23 pts
- 1995-96: 18 wins, 59 losses, 5 ties, 41 pts
- 1996-97: 31 wins, 36 losses, 15 ties, 77 pts (team clinches playoff spot for first time)
- 1997-98: 34 wins, 33 losses, 15 ties, 83 pts
- 1998-99: 44 wins, 23 losses, 15 ties, 103 pts
- 2000-01: 48 wins, 21 losses, 9 ties, 109 pts
In comparison, here’s a look at Ottawa’s record when Spezza was on the team:
- 2002-03: 52 wins, 21 losses, 8 ties, 1 OTL, 113 pts
- 2003-04: 43 wins, 23 losses, 10 ties, 6 OTL, 102 pts
- 2005-06: 52 wins, 21 losses, 9 ties, 113 pts
- 2006-07: 48 wins, 25 losses, 9 ties, 105 pts (Stanley Cup finals appearance)
- 2007-08: 43 wins, 31 losses, 8 OTL, 94 pts
- 2008-09: 36 wins, 35 losses, 11 OTL, 83 pts
- 2009-10: 44 wins, 32 losses, 6 OTL, 94 pts
When Jason joined the team, he was surrounded by a plethora of offensive talent. Names like Martin Havlat, Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa were already helping carry the offensive workload for the Senators. As Spezza matured, his reponsibilities and quality of linemates improved significantly. Shawn McEachern may have been a defensively responsible, speedy up-and-down winger and Andreas Dackell might have been Swedish. But Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, they are not.
Also working against Yashin is the fact that he played in an era when the neutral zone trap became vogue. Thanks to the success of the New Jersey Devils, Jacques Lemaire’s system was mimicked around the league. Of course it didn’t help matters that the ineptitude of the NHL Officials Association refused to call the game as outlined by the NHL rule book. As the league made concerted efforts to try and fix the game, it was Spezza’s generation of talent who reaped the benefits. Edge: Yashin
Maybe I should have entitled this defensive indifference since neither player is best known for playing a two-way game. Although to be fair, Yashin was never benched or singled out by Jacques Martin for being a defensive liability. It should be noted however that there has been a ground swell of support for Spezza’s dedication to improving the defensive aspect of his game. It’s for this reason that people keep drawing parallels between Spezza and Steve Yzerman’s career paths. Edge: Even. Speaking of which…
The Steve Yzerman Coincidence:
According to legend, on February 26th, 1996, Detroit’s VP and GM, Jimmy Devellano and Ottawa’s GM, Pierre Gauthier agreed in principle to a trade that would have seen Chris Osgood and Steve Yzerman dealt to the Senators in exchange for Alexei Yashin, Damian Rhodes and Ottawa’s first round picks in 1996 and 1997.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of speculation as to why Devellano backed out on the trade. Some theorize that owner, Mike Illitch, vetoed the deal because Yzerman was one of his favorites. Another theory is that Devellano backed out because he only wanted to put a scare into Yzerman using the threat of a trade. At the time, it was well publicized that Head Coach Scotty Bowman was having issues getting Stevie Y to commit to the defensive side of the game. By publicly displaying the possibility that he could be moved, the threat of a trade left Yzerman quite impressionable. Imagine having to be faced with the daunting task of turning a his hometown team, a perennial losing franchise, into a contender.
However, the question remains…what if the Yzerman deal actually occurred?
On the surface, the Jason Spezza, Zdeno Chara and Bill Muckalt for Alexei Yashin fleacejob never happened. Without the 1996 and 1997 first rounders, Marian Hossa and Chris Phillips never would have played for the Senators either. No Hossa. No Heatley. No Milan Michalek. No Jonathan Cheechoo. (Huzzah!) And no 2010 second round pick.
In other words, without Chara and Phillips, the conversation concerning the best Senators defenceman ever would have been limited to Wade Redden, Norm MacIver and Steve Duchesne. Yikes. If that wasn’t bad enough, imagine having to go through the rest of your existence as a Sens fan without being able to reference Bill Muckalt’s goalless 2001-02 season?
Conversely, had Steve Yzerman been dealt to Ottawa, maybe he never would have made the team sacrifice and developed a solid two-way game. More importantly, without Jason Spezza, fans never would have heard their peers draw parallels between their respective careers.
So what’s better? The man who was almost dealt for Steve Yzerman? Or the man who hasn’t lived up to the expectations that he can follow in Stevie Y’s footsteps? Edge: Yashin. (On the basis that I’ve read some rumours about returns in any Spezza trade, Ottawa isn’t getting anything resembling an Yzerman in return.)
Well, let’s get this right out of the way. The true barometer of success in the eyes of many, is whether or not a player has a ring. Just ask Andre Roy. Unfortunately, although neither of our two comparables have won the Cup during their time here, for the purposes of this piece, there is a clear distinction in the playoff production between Spezza and Yashin. And it’s this same distinction that The Hockey News chose to dissect and come to a conclusion that fits their purposes.
In the playoffs, Yashin had just 15 points in 26 games, while Spezza is much better at 46 points in 46 games. But here you have to look past the stats. Perception is the playoff reality in Ottawa and it’s the same for both players. The knock on Yashin was always his sudden disappearance come spring. But Spezza has also garnered a post-season reputation of disappearing for long periods of time like the team’s namesakes on Parliament Hill. Granted the Senators made the Cup final with Spezza in ’07, but in the eyes of media and fans he was nowhere to be found against Anaheim. And this past spring, Spezza put up a solid seven points in six games against Pittsburgh in the first round, yet was heavily criticized in Ottawa for what was seen as another vanishing act by a franchise center. Different stats, same perceived player.
So neither won a Cup and have (un)fairly been perceived as disappointments. I’m glad that’s settled. It may not mean much but I think it says something when my distinct playoff memory for each individual is completely different. In Yashin’s case, I’ll never forget game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals when the team was facing elimination against the Buffalo Sabres. With the Senators up by one goal, Yashin took a defensive zone faceoff that he won outright and lifted over the shoulder of a hapless Ron Tugnutt. Amazingly, Tugnutt one-upped himself in OT when a Derek Plante slapshot from just inside the blueline eluded his trapper.
With a struggling offensive club, Jacques Martin waited until the Senators were trailing three games to one in the 2003 Eastern Conference finals to New Jersey before inserting Jason Spezza into the lineup. Martin may have been a phenominal x’s and o’s kind of guy but it was this kind of move that cemented his legacy as a coach who was too stubborn to adapt to the situation. (Ed. note: Well, that and the fact that he never beat the Maple Leafs in four tries.) Anyways, the point here is that Spezza drew into the lineup and scored a
To be fair, neither player was blessed to have played in front of a capable goaltender during their times. (Ed. note: With the exception that had Dominik Hasek had elected not to go to Torino, I probably wouldn’t even be discussing Jason Spezza’s playoff disappointments. I blame Hasek, who had already won gold in Nagano and as unfair as it probably is, I blame John Muckler for not pushing the agenda. Even if he was bound not to.) Edge: Big edge to Spezza.
Ability to Stay On the Ice:
Withouth looking at the numbers, I bet that if you asked fans the question of who they thought had played more games in a Senators uniform – Yashin or Spezza? Most fans would respond with Spezza. Although both players have played here for seven years, when you take into account Yash’s numerous contract holdouts and the 1994 NHL strike, it’s easy to understand why some would make the assumption that Spezza had played in more games. Unlike Spezza who has battled a myriad of minor injuries, Yashin found a way to stay healthy. Four times he played the full 82-game season and in his rookie season, he played 83 of 84 games. However, I can’t overlook the fact that Yashin missed so much time due to chase the almighty dollar. Edge: Spezza.
When Spezza broke into the OHL scene at the age of 15, he immediately captured the attention of every hockey media outlet in this country. Always eager to find the next generational talent, they had no problem pegging Spezza as a future NHL phenom. I doubt that when they cued up the hype machine, they ever envisioned that one of Jason’s best career moments to date would be his inclusion as part of Ben & Jerry’s promotion of their Caramel Hat Trick ice-cream. Okay, so I’m not being entirely fair here. To his credit, Spezza has had some fine moments. During the NHL lockout in 2004, Spezza spent the year in the AHL capturing the league scoring title — the John B. Sollenger Trophy — and the Les Cunningham Trophy as the AHL’s most valuable player. In 2007, his Senators went to the Stanley Cup final. A team feat that Yashin never did accomplish. Fittingly, Yashin’s accomplishments were more of the personal variety. After missing the 1999-2000 season to a contract holdout, Yashin came to Ottawa to fulfill the last year of his contract and posted a 94 point season that earned him a nomination for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Although Yashin didn’t win the award, he was selected as a second team NHL All-Star. It wasn’t the first time that Yashin was nominated for a major award though. As a rookie during the 1993-94 season, he posted 79 points and was nominated for the Calder Trophy. Do I even have to bother mentioning that Yashin was also the team captain before his last holdout lead to Alfie’s succession of him? Talk about a blessing in disguise. Game. Set. Match. Edge: Yashin.
On one hand, you have perhaps the most polarizing figure in Senators history. On the other, you have arguably the most hated Senators player ever. At least in Spezza’s case, you can’t accuse him of putting his own interests ahead of the team. Although he can come across as a vain player, most of the gripes against Spezza are levied against him because of this public perception that he has an abundance of untapped talent. Instead of accepting Spezza for what he is, many not only expect more from him, they demand more. They want him to develop that Steve Yzerman two-way game and see him impose his large frame upon the opposition more. It doesn’t help matters that Spezza’s been in the public eye from a very young age. Because of it, fans tend to overanalyze his postseason successes or lack thereof and question why he’s never been a winner. Unlike Yashin, you can’t accuse Spezza of being recluse. For starters, it’s not like he chooses to live with his parents. From his very public wedding in the summer of 2009 to his charity work, Spezza has tried to embed himself into this city’s fabric.
It’s not like Yashin wasn’t familiar with charity work though. It’s just that when he did make donations, he had a tendency to take back his money
. Despite this debacle, Yash will best be remembered for his two contract hold outs. Forever living in infamy for his self-serving greed. (Ed. note: From a personal standpoint, I always like Yashin. Having met and played street hockey with him, I can say that he was a really nice guy. Given his living situation and background, I’ve always believed that he was susceptible to some terrible advice from his agent, Mark Gandler.) Edge:
Given the similarity in the number of games that Yashin (504) and Spezza (459) have played, the timing of the THN article is perfect. In either case, you can make a good argument as to why either player could be described as the greatest center who ever played for the organization. However, what ultimately doesn’t work in Yashin’s favour is that barring a trade, Jason Spezza’s career with the Senators should be longer than Yashin’s. (Ed. note: This is me knocking on wood right now.) Even if Spezza plays just one more season with the organization, he should easily pass Yashin for sole possession of second place on the franchise’s points list. Besides, even if only twelve people attended the Save Spezza Rally, that’s 12 more than Yashin ever received at the conclusion of the 2000-01 season. So in conclusion, like Yashin held onto the captaincy in Ottawa, he can wear the interim tag as the greatest center in Senators history until the more deserving player is ready to take it from him.