Magical Leadership Powers And The Plight of 19

From the moment that Jason Spezza was announced as the successor to Daniel Alfredsson’s vacated captaincy, nothing has gone his way.

Spezza’s story is not exactly new.

Having missed the bulk of the lockout shortened season after undergoing a second operation on his back, the elite playmaking center was named as the eighth captain in franchise history.

Left off Team Canada’s shortlist for the men’s Olympic team in Sochi, Spezza coveted the captaincy:

“If you ask any player you'd love to have the distinction of being captain of your club. It's something that I pride myself on being a leader in our room and we've always led as a group leadership core. I think it'll continue that way whether it's me or someone else as captain. I feel like I'm one of the leaders on our team that has to be good night in and night out and make sure things are running smoothly in the room and take a lot of responsibility with how I'm playing. If it does happen I don't think there's much in the way I have to handle myself that'll have to change and that couldn't have been said five or six years ago. We'll see what happens, we don't make those decisions but it's definitely something I'd love to have a chance to do.”

The expectation from the organization was that Spezza could be counted on to use: 1) the Olympic ‘snub’; 2) him missing the lockout shortened season; and 3) the captaincy as motivating factors heading into the season and parlay that motivation into production.

Despite a groin injury that Spezza suffered in training camp that limited his time on the ice ain practice and during exhimbition and develop on-ice chemistry with the team’s marquee offseason acquisition, Bobby Ryan, any concerns about his groin or Ryan/Spezza’s play were at least temporarily quelled because Spezza produced seven goals and ten points in his first eight games and Ryan found chemistry with Ottawa’s ‘second line’ center, Kyle Turris.

For many, it didn’t matter that Spezza’s production was propped up by an unsustainable 29.2-percent shooting percentage. Nor did it matter that Spezza was also on the ice for more even strength goals against (seven) than he was for goals for (five).

Fans could overlook it, assuming the production could stay at close to a point per game pace, but since his first eight games, Spezza’s only produced four goals and 20 points in his last 31 games.

The Senators’ maddeningly inconsistent play has frustrated everyone surrounding the team and helped bring Spezza’s play and leadership under the microscope.

It never helps when a coach drops a bombshell following a frustrating loss:

“There’s a lack of focus, there’s a lack of leadership, there’s a lack of preparation, just a lack of wanting to play in the National Hockey League and be a team that is willing to do what it takes to be elite. We’re a long, long way from being an elite team in the league.”

MacLean would later clarify his comments to try and absolve some blame from this team’s designated leaders, but there’s no question that this team’s struggles and the weight of the ‘C’ are wearing on Spezza.

You can hear it in the frustration in his voice following each loss; especially when SensTV doesn’t censor his F-bombs.

I can certainly empathize with Spezza.

He certainly does not want to struggle in the wake of Alfie’s departure.

Although I’m just as inclined to believe that the decision to acquire Bobby Ryan was as PR-driven as it was a hockey trade, the fans and the media were sold on the belief that Ryan would be flanking Spezza.

To this point in the season, Spezza’s only played 87 minutes and 39 seconds with Ryan. It’s essentially 40 more than he has played with Erik Condra.

The constant shuffling of linemates has assuredly contributed to Spezza’s problems, especially since the Turris line has been the team’s most constant line and has essentially deprived Spezza of playing with the team’s two most productive and consistent wingers in Ryan and Clarke MacArthur.

Essentially it has forced Spezza to be partnered with Milan Michalek – a player, who like Spezza, was coming off a significant injury last season.

To their credit, the duo did have some success during the 2011/12 season when they were both healthier and enjoying being part of a five-man unit that included a Norris Trophy winning Erik Karlsson.

But, that was two years ago and this is now.

19 with 9
19 without 9
9 without 19

The above statistics come via HockeyAnalysis and paint a pretty clear picture that Spezza has fared considerably better away from Michalek. His goal production climbs steadily and his GA/20 is almost cut in half when Spezza plays away from Michalek.

Part of this can be attributable to Ottawa’s goaltenders poor save percentage when either player is on the ice. Coming into tonight’s game versus Washington, Senators goalies stopped 89.4-percent of the shots when Spezza is on the ice to 88.2-percent of the shots when Michalek is on the ice.

Taking the two back surgeries, ineffectual linemates and some bad luck in terms of Ottawa’s goaltenders being unable to save a proportionate number of shots while Spezza is on the ice, there’s some real, tangible context for why Spezza’s game has suffered this season. He's labouring to get around, win battles and has blown some key defensive assignments.

Unfortunately, Chris Neil’s post-game speech on Friday night in Boston is being used as an explanation for the Senators’ bounce-back win in Ottawa the following night. What you won’t hear is how Claude Julien relied on Tuuka Rask starting both games or how the Bruins were missing six regulars due to injury, including Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.

It’s a lazy narrative and one that makes for an easy to pen piece on how the Senators rallied around Neil’s leadership. Ignoring the fact that this message is probably the same one that’s been reiterated countless times throughout the team’s numerous closed-door meetings and pregame/postgame conversations. But hey, if Chris Neil’s were truly magical, it’s just a shame that the organization had to wait until after game 41 to .

Perhaps the worst effect of this narrative is that it panders to the anti-Spezza crowd who will use this as an indictment of the captain and will relish the chance to undeservedly shit on the captain’s leadership skills – acting like they have an informed clue of what actually takes place or is said within the confines of the dressing room.

It’s this questioning of leadership that will inevitably lead to fans asking for the captain to be moved, but there are legitimately valid reasons to consider moving Spezza without having to stoop to that level.

Via Behindthenet, the following chart chronicles Spezza’s five-on-five production since the 2007-08 season. As you can see, his goals per 60 minutes of ice-time is tied for the second lowest rate during this period of time. Similarly, although his points per 60 rate is the third lowest total during this time, his elevated second assist (A2) per 60 rate has propped up his points per 60 rate. If his second assist rate normalizes, you’re looking at player who’s having one of his worst offensive seasons.


There are plenty of examples of elite players playing well into their mid to late 30’s, but Spezza hasn’t exactly been renowned for his two-way play. He is not turning into late career Steve Yzerman, he is not going to win a Selke trophy.

Question is, does this down season portend something worse.

Paul MacLean has asked Spezza to make adjustments to his game.

"For Jason, we've asked him to make changes to his game to a more complete game and a more 200-foot game," said MacLean. "And when you go through changes to your game, the offensive side of it a lot of the time suffers.  And I think he's starting to get through that. He created some opportunities last night and some previous games. We're seeing an improvement in it, but we'd like to see it speed up a little more than it has. But it's a process that takes time and we have to be willing to be patient with it. But at the same time, we need him to be better – especially in the power play situations."

In their 2011-12 annual,Hockey Prospectusiillustrated that a player’s production gradually increases from their sophomore season through their peak which occurs when a player is 25 to 26 years years old. From their peak season, production tends to gradually decrease until approximately 32 years of age. From that age on, production declines sharply.

With a season left on his contract beyond this 2013/14 season, barring a contract extension or a trade, Spezza will hit UFA at the age of 31. But, if he can't play the 200' style that Paul MacLean demands now and there's uncertainty surrounding Spezza's ability to stay in the lineup, there are legitimate reasons to consider moving him and giving Mika Zibanejad the second line pivot spot. Just leave leadership the hell out the conversation.