Why the Senators Should Probably Move Jason Spezza

Yesterday for TSN.ca, the affable Ian Mendes posted a rational and well-argued blog (that you can and should read in its entirety here) in support of Jason Spezza that advances the argument that it is in the Senators’ best interests to hold onto Spezza.

It’s worth noting that nowhere within the article itself did Ian refer to there being any caveat to holding onto Spezza. For example, Ian never says, “If the Senators implode next season and a playoffs appearance is out of the question, the Senators should move Spezza at the deadline.” But, for the sake of clarity, I asked Ian via Twitter whether he would in fact look to move Spezza if the Senators were out of a playoff spot by the 2015 NHL trade deadline.

Okay, so now have our basic tenets of this piece to analyze.

Is it in the Senators best interests to keep Jason Spezza? And if he is moved, should the 2015 NHL trade deadline be the test time to make the trade, assuming that the Senators have no chance at a playoff spot?

I’ll begin by agreeing by Mendes. With the exception of perhaps Wade Redden in the last stages of his career in Ottawa, there has and may never be a player more polarizing figure in Senators history than Jason Spezza. Well, until Jason moves on and then Erik Karlsson and his proclivity for offence becomes the new target of disdain for impassioned post-game callers who feel compelled to share their brilliance and ingenuity by articulating the finer points of why Erik Karlsson should be transition into a forward.

Sigh.

Where were we?

Ah yes, in last night’s 5-4 shootout victory, we saw the best and the worst of Jason Spezza.

He had a goal and two gorgeous assists, including one of the spin-o-rama variety that is guaranteed to make all of the top highlight of the week segments. But at the same time, he’s very fortunate to have produced in the limited opportunities that his line had that game. Not only was Spezza on for one goal against, but from a possession standpoint, the center was dominated by the Blues using either Corsi (33.3%) or Fenwick (38.5%). (Note: these metrics were applied in all 5v5 situations, with the score close, both rates dip further.)

In fact, if you look at the game itself, it’s essentially a microcosm of Spezza’s career in Ottawa. When discussing Jason Spezza’s production, it’s really not a matter of how many points he’s putting up. All that matters is: how much does his offensive production outweigh whatever defensive shortcomings he has. Like this St. Louis game, provided he puts up the points, it’s a positive trade off that most fans and the media will accept.

The problem for Spezza is that it simply has not happened often enough this season.

Within Ian’s article, he draws a comparison to Eric Staal, another center who was omitted from Team Canada’s roster, who on the surface, has similar point totals to Jason Spezza this season.

There is no arguing that Spezza has had a rough season in 2013-14. In many ways, Spezza is having a similar season to Eric Staal in Carolina. Staal has 14 goals and 44 points and was left off Team Canada's roster because of his slow start. Spezza has 15 goals and 42 points – numbers that look awfully similar to Staal's. The Sens captain sits 24th in scoring amongst centremen in the NHL, a ranking that suggests that he is still a legitimate number-one centre in a 30-team league.

It’s true that Staal has turned it on of late. After a slow start, the Carolina center has tallied 11 goals and 35 points in his last 34 games. Granted, like Spezza, he has suffered from some bad luck simply because Carolina’s goaltenders have posted a .903 save percentage when Staal is on the ice at five-on five this season. Conversely, Ottawa’s goaltenders have a combined .896 save percentage when Spezza is on the ice.

But while Staal’s production, especially on the even strength end, has come on of late, Spezza’s has tapered off slightly since talling seven goals and ten points in his first eight games. Since that time Spezza only has three even strength goals in his last 44 games, including a span of 28 games in which he did not score an even strength goal.

As a player who is rebounding from a second operation on his back, fans keep waiting for Spezza to turn the corner and resemble his pre-injury form. Unlike a number of Ottawa’s other players who are coming off major injuries sustained during the 2012-13 season, Spezza’s play hasn’t improved. Erik Karlsson, his skating and play has markedly improved since the beginning. Jared Cowen? He has improved. Milan Michalek? He’s one step step closer to unrestricted free agency with each passing day, so that’s an improvement too.

Spezza was never blessed as the world’s most prolific skater or portrayed as someone with a strong defensive acumen, so seeing him get killed at even strength this season has been agonizing; especially since Spezza inherited the captaincy that was vacated when Daniel Alfredsson bolted for Detroit in the offseason.

As I’ve written in previous articles, it’s not like there aren’t reasonable explanations for why he hasn’t produced. The injuries, the constant linemate shuffling and even reaching an age in which we can expect a natural decline in production have all played a part, but there is a glimmer of hope though because Spezza does however have three goals and nine points in his last eight games.

Mendes pointed out in his article that despite some unfavorable factors, Spezza is also only one point behind Kyle Turris on the team scoring list without the luxury of playing with the same quality of linemates so far this season. And while everyone can agree that Turris is trending upwards, most believe that the opposite is true for Spezza.

Those who are into analytics have been trumpeting Spezza's poor Corsi numbers all season long as tangible proof of his declining skills.

To be honest, Jason Spezza has never really driven possession since the advanced stat community started tracking the stat. He has always hovered around the 50.0 Corsi For % mark in each season. In fact, if you throw out his injury-plagued 2012-13 season and take an aggregate Corsi rating from the 2007-08 campaign to the present, Spezza has a CF% of 51.5. And just to reiterate, Spezza’s CF% this season is 50.8. Circling back to Eric Staal for a moment, although his CF% is in the vicinity of Spezza’s, it’s worth point out that Staal also plays for a poor puck possession team. Looking at the Relative Corsi, which contrasts a player’s Corsi rating and puts it in perspective relative to the Corsi ratings of his teammates, Staal has the seventh highest Relative Corsi rating on the Hurricanes. Conversely, Jason Spezza has the 19th highest Relative Corsi rating on the Senators.

If we are going to make the argument Spezza hasn't had better linemates at even strength, it is worth pointing out that going into Tuesday night’s game in St. Louis, Zack Smith was tied with Jason Spezza for being on ice for 25 five-on-five goals. Similarly, Kyle Turris (13), Mika Zibanejad (nine) and Smith (nine) are all centers who have more even strength goals than Spezza’s eight.

There is also the fact that Spezza receives the highest allotment of power play time amongst forwards on the Senators. His average of 3:07 per game leads Senators forwards and it is also ranks as the 33rd highest total amongst centers in the NHL. For reference, Turris is amongs the centers on the team at 2:24. From a point production opportunity standpoint, Spezza’s had the best or most opportunity on the power play.

Via ExtraSkater.com, the following is a breakdown of the percentage of team’s power play ice-time that a player is on the ice for:

Rk

Player

PP Tm%

1

Erik Karlsson

75.5

2

Jason Spezza

55.6

3

Bobby Ryan

48.2

4

Clarke MacArthur

47.3

5

Kyle Turris

43.3

 

By looking at Hockey Analysis and ExtraSkater, I have looked further into Spezza’s linemate situation over the years and broken down the numbers and arrived at some interesting figures. The following chart illustrates: Spezza’s teammate shooting percentage when Spezza is on the ice at five-on-five; Spezza’s shooting percentage at five-on-five; and how many shots per game Ottawa’s four other skaters averaged as a unit with Spezza on the ice at five-on-five.

 

Teammate SH%

Jason Spezza SH%

Teammates Sh/G

2013/14

7.7

7.7

7.02

2011/12

8.7

11.9

8.63

2010/11

8.9

10.8

7.94

2009/10

8.2

10.5

7.10

2008/09

7.7

10.8

7.27

2007/08

11.6

13.1

8.26

 

As you can see by the results, there has not been a huge drop in teammate shooting percentage or in the number of shots per game that his teammates have averaged. The biggest decline has to do with Spezza’s own five-on-five shooting percentage.

Shooting percentage is usually a pretty volatile stat, so it stands to reason that Spezza can change his fortune and start scoring more frequently. But as I wrote in another post for the blog a few weeks ago, I was glancing at SportingCharts even strength charts that allow you to visualize where players have been taking their shots and getting their goals and in contrasting this current season with Spezza’s productive 2011/12 campaign that happened as recently as two years ago, you can see that he’s simply not shooting a high volume of shots from high traffic areas or places where he has had success in the past.

Perhaps most importantly, I feel like the tragic flaw in Mendes’ support of Spezza is that it only looks at Spezza’s point production as justification that he is or can still be a team’s number one center. But at some point, being able to drive possession and also prevent the other team’s best offensive players from scoring is part of the equation. To that end, Kyle Turris has been exceptional this year.

Although Turris may lack the offensive ceiling that Jason had or may still have, his two-way play has been exceptional and his decision-making and attentiveness in the defensive zone has not gone unnoticed. Not only does he lead the Senators in even strength point, he’s not getting scored on often either, despite often playing against the opposition’s best players on a nightly basis.

Incidentally, it’s kind of surprising that no one has penned some piece outlining how the Senators were one of the best defensive teams in hockey without Jason Spezza in the lineup in 2012-13 *cough,cough* they also had Vezina quality goaltending too. *cough, cough*

Finally, Mendes’ most compelling point and the one that he wisely saved for his conclusion is the fact that Jason Spezza’s contract is so team friendly.

He writes:

But what fans need to remember about Spezza is that his contract is set up very favorably for next season. While he carries a cap hit of $7 million, he will actually only get paid $4 million in actual money for the 2014-15 campaign.  (Spezza is being paid $5 million this season as his front-loaded contract starts to decline).

And for a team like Ottawa that is desperate to reach the salary cap floor, this contract is an absolute dream. For next season, the Sens are getting $3 million of salary cap space eaten up for nothing. If the Sens were a spend-to-the-cap team, this deal would be an issue for them, but the exact opposite is true and that is why I would expect the Senators to hang onto their captain. He gives them $7 million of salary cap space for the price of $4 million.

And now ask yourself this important question: Would you pay Jason Spezza $4 million to play next season?

In a vacuum, Mendes is right. Who wouldn’t want to pay Jason Spezza $4 million?

But the problem is that it’s a short-term/monetary benefit issue that ignores the philosophical question of whether or not the Senators have a future with Jason Spezza beyond the expiration of his current deal.

With two back surgeries already under his belt, the risk in extending Spezza at his age is huge. A mid-cap team like the Senators simply cannot afford to paper over the mistake should he get hurt. I mean, we are talking about a player who has missed chunks of time (92 games total) over the past five seasons.

Does it make sense for the Senators to give him any kind of term, knowing that his chronic back problems could flare up at any time?

I certainly don’t think so, especially if the organization has any reservations created by this season’s evidence that depicts a player whose offensive contributions are diminishing and no longer outweigh his performance on the other side of the puck.

I know I have seen a number of people on social media raise the point that the possibility exists that Spezza could sign a team friendly deal – both in term and dollar value – to remain in Ottawa. But, when you’re slated to hit UFA at the age of 32 and teams will have a wealth of money and cap space created in part by the new Canadian national broadcast rights agreement, why turn up the opportunity to test free agency for the first time and miss out on an opportunity to cash in on your last big contract at the age of 32?

For the player, it doesn’t make sense. But for the Senators, it makes a ton of sense to walk away. And ultimately, if that is what the Senators decide to do, it doesn’t make sense to hold onto Spezza until next year’s deadline.

For one, there’s the risk of injury. Should Jason Spezza get hurt next season, it limits the return at the deadline or worse, there isn’t a return because he’s physically unable to perform or no team is willing to take him on.

Two, teams will be loading up this summer on free agents and exhausting other options. With any luck, there will be some team out there that falls short of expectations in the Stanley Cup playoffs because their offence dries up; creating this kneejerk reactionary response to acquire an offensive-minded player like Spezza. Perhaps most importantly, by asking Spezza to waive in the summer, it gives him an opportunity to survey the landscape and pick a number of landing spots that otherwise may not be that enticing by the time the 2014/15 playoff spot unfolds.

By making Spezza available in the summer, there should be a bigger market of teams with a need, the money and a willingness to bring Spezza into the fold. Moreover, it avoids the following scenarios:

1)      The Anton Volchenkov Scenario: The team could remain in a playoff position and as such, be unwilling to move a veteran like Spezza. The team will roll the dice thinking that it’s better to lose Spezza for nothing than reduce its opportunity to win a series in the playoffs.

2)      The Wade Redden Scenario: Senators management thinks it is in the team’s best interests to move the player, but because of the player’s NTC, the organization cannot or will not ask the player to waive. The player remains in the fold, the team bows out early in the postseason and then the player bolts in UFA.

And as Ian mentioned, Spezza’s salary and cap should not only be enticing to the Senators, but to other teams as well. In real dollars, he’s cheap and that should expand the market for his services, which is good because his NTC will already limit the suitors that are out there.

With this team in desperate need of more elite talent that can augment its young core, perhaps Spezza is the kind of player who can net the kind of assets that can either be used to draft or develop such players or can be parlayed to bring in another asset with considerable upside.

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