Spezza The Key To Turning It Around

“Our expectation is to be one of eight teams to make the playoffs (in the East). That’s hard to accomplish. I don’t think we’re in position to say we’re going to be one of the top four. A lot depends on the growth of our players and the consistency of our players.”

This was GM Bryan Murray addressing the media at his end of the season availability last May.

It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing by the silver fox.

Through the quarter mark of this season, the Senators’ biggest problems have stemmed from the growth and consistency of its players and should these shortcomings continue, the risk of missing the postseason for the first time in three seasons will be very real.

Suffice it to say, with a few exceptions – Robin Lehner, Kyle Turris, and Bobby Ryan (who I think has come to this organization better than advertised) – the bulk of Ottawa’s roster has either had their development and/or production plateau or they have simply taken a step back.

As disconcerting as it is to see players like Patrick Wiercioch and Jared Cowen struggle to adjust and play effectively without a veteran defensive partner (note: coincidentally, both of these players spent their last full season playing alongside Sergei Gonchar – Cowen in 2011/12 and Wiercioch in 2013), these players still have time on their side.

What has to be most concerning of all is the all-around play of Jason Spezza.

His puck possession struggles are like the white elephant in the room that people are hypersensitive to discuss.

Whenever an observation or a statistic is brought forth that may not necessarily cast Jason in the best light. Usually I’ll get a few reactionary tweets or emails commenting on how Spezza is still a point-per-game player, or I’ll have it pointed out to me that the team isn’t playing well as a whole, or I’ll be told Paul MacLean’s constant lineup shuffling has negatively affected Spezza, or I’ll have someone remind me that Spezza’s coming off his second surgery on his back.

They are all incredibly fair and valid points.

He does have 9 goals and 18 points in 21 games. But, it’s also worth mentioning that 5 of his goals came in the first 6 games and he does only have 2 goals in his last 12 games – both of which were scored on looks at wide open cages. I’m sure there’s some old hockey adage about it being tough to score goals when you’re always trapped in your own end.

And if you’ve been playing close attention to Spezza’s possession metrics, all of the factors – the injury, the team’s poor supporting play, the constant juggling of linemates, and potential decline – have probably all factored in here.

The question is, how do you evaluate whether it’s Spezza or others who are at the root of the problem?

Jason’s own Corsi For % (the percentage of shots/missed shots/blocked shots by the Sens when he’s on the ice) is hovering at 45.1%. In other words, when Jason is on the ice at 5v5, the opposition is taking 54.9% of the shot attempts. Of the players who’ve played more than 100 minutes this season, it’s the second worst rate on the team; trailing only Colin Greening. It’d be one thing if you were Matt Kassian and you were only logging 4 to 6 minutes a night, but when you’re averaging 14:31 of even-strength time on-ice, that’s a significant amount of time spent in the defensive zone. 

Yuck.

A quick glance at his With Or Without You rates paint a picture of a player whose teammates play better away from him than they do with him.

For starters, despite the rotating linemates, he’s still been on the ice with Erik Karlsson for 53.9% of his shifts. It’s not a large drop from his 2011-12 campaign in which he posted 84 points in 80 games. During that season, he was on the ice with Karlsson for 54.3% of his shifts.

Moreover, no regulars benefit from a higher percentage of offensive zone starts than Michalek (55.7%) and Spezza (54.4%).

As one reader pointed out on Twitter, Spezza played with Colin Greening and Milan Michalek two years ago, but they’re no longer the players that they once were – for what it’s worth, Greening is 27 and Michalek is 28 years old.

The truth is, Spezza may not be the same player we saw two years ago either. Of course it’s ridiculously early in this season to write off his problems, especially since he’s such an immensely gifted player. I mean, in looking at the top 50 active NHL scorers, only Crosby and Ovechkin have produced more points in fewer games than Jason Spezza.

It almost feels silly to say it considering we’re talking about a player who has so much history and production in this city, but the organization needs to figure out the answers to a number of questions.

Time should help answer whether or not he’ll ever get fully recovered from his back surgery, but the organization needs to know if he’s still capable of carrying shitty linemates to maintain his career norms. Or does he need to play with better talent to preserve those levels?

Considering the Senators will be able to open negotiations with Spezza on an extension at the conclusion of the season, they need to start assessing what kind of player he is now and what kind of player he can be down the road.

There’s no question that much of Ottawa’s short-term and future success is predicated on what Spezza brings to the table, and no one should really want to see him struggle with his all-around game; especially after he inherited the captaincy when Daniel Alfredsson bolted for Detroit.

Nevertheless, should his inability to impact the puck possession game persist and we’re further removed from seeing him play at his best, the more we have to start considering the possibility that what we’re seeing now may simply be the early phases of decline for the best offensive center that this team has ever had.

So what can the organization do?

Listening to the Senators pregame show the other day, Todd White suggested that the Senators break up the top line of MacArthur-Turris-Ryan to give Spezza a running mate who can help him. In lending MacArthur to Spezza’s wing, it would give him one of the team’s smarter two-way players and moreover, it’d be a great litmus test to find out where Spezza’s game is actually at.

Judging by the line combinations, the trio of MacArthur-Turris-Ryan is staying intact. Instead, Mika Zibanejad will be given another opportunity to play with Spezza.

To Zibanejad’s credit, he’s second on the team in Corsi For %. He leads the team in shots per 60 minutes of ice-time with 10.6. He is second behind only Bobby Ryan in points per 60 minutes of ice-time with 2.32. If he can find chemistry with Spezza to give the team a competent second line that can produce points and suppress the opposition’s attack, it would do wonders to help spark this team’s turnaround.

If not, I would be completely comfortable turning to Clarke MacArthur to help. 

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