I’m the kind of person to lean one direction and the other when I’m bowling in some vain attempt to will the ball to curve. If I’m playing a racing game, I’ll grip the controller nearly to the point of breaking it hoping it will somehow accelerate the vehicle on screen. I often feel this way when I follow the Ottawa Senators. It’s not easy being an armchair GM or a backseat coach. It will take more than just this coming off-season before I’ll have fully recovered from the re-signing of veteran defenceman Chris Phillips. One thing I believe Senators general manager Bryan Murray and I agree on is that Jason Spezza is not in the organization’s future plans. If the recent murmurings are any evidence, the team’s recently appointed captain will not be offered a contract next year, and Murray would do well to optimize the return by dealing him before he nears the final months of his seven-year deal.
Something interesting happened in March. The Senators acquired Ales Hemsky from the Oilers in exchange for futures, but not before rumours flew around about the potential acquisition of Chris Stewart from Buffalo. The Senators made no effort to hide their intentions; they were seeking a right winger for Jason Spezza. That Hemsky might have been Murray’s plan B is both funny and disturbing. He and Stewart are polar opposites at their position. Only one has shown the ability to drive possession and it’s not Chris Stewart. In fact, this usage chart shows he’s performed very poorly in sheltered zone starts and easy assignments:
I’ve said in the past that there is a place in this league for players who can score despite their inability to drive play. I just don’t think that place is on a line with Spezza. Jason’s had his own issues staying on the right side of the shot attempt battle and between Hemsky and Stewart, the former is a much better candidate to compliment the Ottawa centerman. Indeed, since his acquisition, Hemsky’s bolstered Spezza’s on-ice possession to a +1.84% average relative Corsi rating, and the duo have gotten 53.9% of the attempts while on the ice together at evens. If losing Hemsky to free agency is to be a by-product of dealing Spezza, it’s quite unfortunate. In the short-term, replacing the offensive production provided by that pair, either internally or otherwise, won’t be easy.
During one of the final games of the regular season, I recall hearing an analyst say Kyle Turris began facing tougher competition than Spezza near the halfway mark of the season. In reality, it had been that way since much earlier. Turris has been the team’s top center since October 4th and has been treated as such by opponents since roughly fifteen games in. If we’re taking into consideration the role Turris assumed during last year’s lockout-shortened season with Spezza sidelined, he’s been a first-line center for two consecutive years. Here’s each player’s quality of competition plotted as a 10-game rolling average:
Evidently, Kyle Turris has faced top lines and pairings for the majority of the season. Note that Spezza began to receive this treatment once more around the time hemsky was acquired from Edmonton. Once deployment is accounted for, it’s inexcusable for Spezza not to get the edge in his matchups. Only two regular forwards on the team begin more shifts in the offensive zone and only four have a worse ratio of 5v5 goals while on the ice. What’s perhaps more worrying is all but 5 players having played over 60 5v5 minutes with Spezza have had better possession numbers away from him:
In a recent post, I looked at the Senators players’ performances in each of the three zones. Spezza’s seemingly incurable inability to prevent goals against looks to originate in neutral ice. Opponents have an easier time entering Ottawa’s zone while Spezza’s on the ice than against any other Senator. The only forward who allows more shot attempts per minute of even-strength hockey played is his line-mate Michalek. Whenever a player is causing that many shots against at one end, you had better hope he’s getting it done at the other. Take a look at where Spezza fits in this chart of offensive zone performance:
Zone entries of either type occurring with Spezza on the ice result in the fewest shot attempts among regular forwards. It’s not yet clear whether this is a function of skill so much as it is luck but in extreme cases such as this, I’d be inclined to put some blame on the Ottawa captain. The drop passes and no-lookers just inside the offensive blue line; these have long been a source of many a fan’s frustration, and it’s nice to see the data support that. In any case, the net outcome of neutral zone events with Spezza on heavily favours opposing teams. The ratio of attempted shots resulting from entries occurring while Jason Spezza is on the ice is 47.74% Ottawa. Again, the very worst on the team (excluding Matt Kassian). This means the only thing keeping his CF% respectable is his performance on zone starts, which are notably OZ-heavy.
I think Spezza’s waning performance, injury history and age make the time to trade him ripe. There’s no question setbacks may occur in the short term, namely on the powerplay. He’s far and away the most productive Senator 5v4 in terms of points per minute, and his creativity and skill won’t be easily replaced. The most likely candidate within the organization to take over Spezza’s duties is Mika Zibanejad, a young player on the verge of blossoming in the NHL. Zibanejad’s underlying numbers at his age put him among elite company and he’s earned the right to more minutes with his strong sophomore season. The type of player Mika projects to be is one who will likely excel in all the areas Spezza did not this season. At only 21 years of age, Zibanejad has already surpassed Spezza in neutral zone play and shown an aptitude for driving possession. In all likelihood, he’ll never possess the puck skills and offensive prowess that have defined Spezza’s career, but it’s the other elements of his game which I believe make him a better fit for the style of play Paul Maclean has tried to instill in his players.
I’ll never understand why people so commonly forget that Spezza will not simply disappear into nothingness. A player of his caliber will command a significant return, and getting his salary off the books will certainly alleviate some of the pressure on Mel- err, Murray’s cap constraints. I think the following really emphasizes at which position the Senators are weak and importance of addressing the team’s defence:
Should Jason Spezza be dealt in exchange for a package involving a quality defenceman, I believe it would be a significant step towards improving the future of the club. Kyle Turris will continue to forge an identity as one of the league’s premier two-way centermen, and Spezza’s leftover ice time will spell opportunity for more defensively apt players like Mika Zibanejad. The Ottawa Senators can afford to shed a goal or two, but more importantly, Murray mustn’t burden his successor with the albatross contract that will be Jason Spezza at 36 years of age. There may be bumps in the road, but life after Spezza looks like it’ll be just fine.
Thanks for reading!