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Spezza To Return, Questions Arise

Thanks to the Senators official Twitter account, it looks like Jason Spezza’s return is imminent because the team optioned Zach Smith to Binghamton and Spezza skated on a line with Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek at this morning’s practice. With Jason’s return against the Bruins, things can only get better from here on in. Right?

According to one crazy cat, they can…

“On paper, at the beginning of the year, this was the elite team, one of the Top 5 teams in the league. Now, they’re starting to show their stuff and I think it can only get better because of all the injured players coming back.” ~ The Euge

As the Senators current winning streak extends and the wins get more and more impressive, it’s easy to assume that Spezza’s return will have some profound impact on this team. He can add some depth and creativity to a Senators power play that until last night, had struggled mightily this season.

However, the Senators have been able to put together a 5-game winning streak in his absence and their play without Spezza is classic Ewing Theory 101.

Developed by David Cirilli and ESPN’s Bill Simmons, the Ewing Theory was formed after Cirilli was convinced that Patrick Ewing’s teams (both at Georgetown and with New York) inexplicably played better when Ewing was either injured or missing extended stretches because of foul trouble. The theory consists of the following two points:

  1. A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
  2. That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) — and both the media and fans immediately write off the team.

The knock on Spezza since junior has always been, he’s a great offensive numbers guy who, when he’s not producing, has had difficulty affecting the outcome of games. And in his absence, the chemistry that the lines have developed is unmistakable. Freshman Peter Regin has thrived in his role pivoting Ryan Shannon and Alexei Kovalev and Mike Fisher has rediscovered his scoring touch while being flanked by Nick Foligno and Alfredsson. Even the checking line of Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Kelly and Chris Neil has exceeded expectations to this point. In the absence of guys like Michalek and Spezza, the rest of the lineup has flourished when given the opportunity to step up and assume a larger role.

It’s why the return of Spezza is a little disconcerting for me. Milan Michalek made his return to the lineup last night against the Blues and was an obvious candidate to play with Spezza since they were paired together before their respective injuries. However, the two haven’t combined to produce a goal since Michalek scored in the third period against the Boston Bruins on November 28th. Even though Milan got off to a torrid start, I was never under the impression that he was dependent on Spezza to produce some points.

By throwing Michalek and Spezza together with Alfie, Cory Clouston’s effectively reverted Mike Fisher back into a third line checking center capacity by playing him with Neil and Foligno. By keeping up the continuity and bringing Spezza along slowly, there would be no immediate pressure on the team’s highest paid player to cut his teeth and shoulder the scoring load.

That being said, I understand why Clouston juggled the lines. They’re not static. If Spezza’s production fails to live up to his contract, Clouston has alternatives that he easily revert back to.

So here is a topic for discussion for you readers to hit on:

1) How much pressure is on Jason Spezza to prove that he’s a top center and that there’s life without Heatley?

2) Are you disappointed with the line combinations in his return?

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