THN: Spezza delivery
Am Rande der NHL-Finalspiele zwischen Anaheim und Ottawa dreht sich die Titelstory der nordamerikanischen Fachzeitschrift "The Hockey News" um Jason Spezza, den jungen Superstürmer der Senators:
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By Mike Brophy
Senators are one goal away from advancing to the 2003 Stanley Cup final, if only
they can get past the pesky New Jersey Devils.
It is the
third period of a tied game and Ottawa coach Jacques Martin, a graduate of the
Roger Neilson School of Coaching – where the first lesson is, it’s better to
lose 1-0 than win 7-6 – is being his typically cautious self. Martin looks down
his bench time and time again, each time ignoring one of his team’s most
Spezza sits. And watches. And stews.
ice time was limited in the first two periods, Spezza looked good. He was one of
only a few Senators to conjure up some creativity against the NHL’s best
checking team. In three playoff games in 2002-03, Spezza finished with a goal
and an assist. Not bad for a 19-year-old. But the frustration he felt on the
bench in the third period was a feeling he would experience over and over in his
first few years as a pro.
on the shoulder to go onto the ice never came and the Senators lost the game.
Identified as a “special player” since the age of 14, Spezza sat there confused.
He was confident he had the potential to help vault his team into the final, but
felt unappreciated at the same time. He remembers it as if it were yesterday.
“That was my
whole struggle with Jacques,” says Spezza, now 23. “He had no confidence in me
and I always felt I could do something positive to help the team. He put me in
the series for Game 5 and I thought I played two pretty good games. I thought I
was playing well in Game 7, too, but it just seemed like he was scared to have
me make a mistake. My whole first year in the league I played in fear of making
mistakes because I knew if I did, I’d be sitting on the bench.”
players that were deemed to be “special,” such as Eric Lindros and Sidney
Crosby, made seamless transitions from amateur to professional hockey. You could
argue they were more advanced and better suited to the pro game at an earlier
age, but for Spezza, it has definitely been a roller-coaster ride. Had he been
drafted by a team in desperate need of offense, instead of second overall by the
powerful Senators in 2001, he likely would’ve been given the chance to be a
frontline player much earlier in his career. But the Sens were not short of
offense and were determined to see Spezza become a complete player, not just a
scoring whiz who couldn’t spell “defense,” let alone play it.
youngster to understand and embrace the process was a challenge, but the
Senators feel it was very much worth the effort.
already had played four years in the OHL, Spezza was allowed to turn pro at 19
(rather than having to wait until he was 20) and was eligible to play in the
AHL. Spezza split his rookie pro ’02-03 season between Ottawa and Binghamton,
and although his numbers in the NHL were decent – seven goals and 21 points in
33 games with limited playing time – the Sens decided he’d be better off in the
long run playing a more significant role in the AHL. Spezza disagreed and made
no bones about the fact he was not happy about being sent down.
annoying,” says Spezza, who finished 15th in NHL scoring this season with 34
goals and 87 points despite missing 14 games with a knee injury and another with
a sore back. “Actually, it was more frustrating than anything, just knowing guys
around me were getting good opportunities to play a lot, to flourish and to make
mistakes along the way. I was with a good team with a coach that was real
defense-oriented and didn’t seem to want to give me a chance offensively.”
quite easily could have kept Spezza in the NHL, but they wanted more from him
than simply being a one-way talent. And they knew if they were ever going to win
the Stanley Cup, they needed a first line center who could be responsible
great talent and offensive skill and could make great passes,” says Ottawa GM
John Muckler. “You just knew he was going to be a star in the NHL. But we had to
teach him what the game was all about…It’s all about team concept and doing what
needs to be done to help the team win. He had to learn to be successful under
the team concept and that it wasn’t all about him getting points.”
there were constant meetings with the player to assure him he had a bright
future, but also to convince him the Sens brass knew what it was doing. A
turning point for both the team and Spezza came in 2004-05, when the NHL shut
down for the season because of the lockout and a number of young NHL-ready
players played in the AHL. Many have suggested it was the best year ever for the
only led the AHL in scoring with 32 goals and 117 points, he was named the
league’s MVP. And although the Baby Sens were bounced from the first round of
playoffs after winning the regular season title, many Ottawa prospects –
including Spezza, Chris Kelly, Antoine Vermette, Chris Neil, Anton Volchenkov
and Ray Emery – took important steps in their careers.
“I think the
best thing that ever happened to Jason Spezza was the lockout,” Muckler says.
“He walked in here and thought he was destined to play in the National Hockey
League now. When he was told he couldn’t, he didn’t accept that too well. We
were sending him down and bringing him back, which we like to do with all our
young players, and he wasn’t happy. In the lockout year, he knew he had no
choice and he became more accepting of his situation.”
Paddock, currently an assistant coach with the Senators, coached Spezza in
Binghamton during the lockout. He has witnessed the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Toronto
native taking great strides.
the game with his hands and his head,” Paddock says. “A lot of junior players
play it like that. Junior coaches let them get away with it because they have to
win, so they let them take long shifts and cheat defensively. Jason had a lot to
learn and I think it is just this year that it is starting to kick in.”
When the NHL
returned in 2005-06, it was not the end of Spezza’s woes, though it did spell an
end to his days in the minors. Ottawa returned with a new coach, the very
successful but demanding Bryan Murray, and the expectations on the young rising
star were ratcheted up again.
see players of his size and skill level, you always want them to be a star and
with the puck he is a star,” Murray says. “He came here and there was no
question he could do things. And he took chances. The problem is in the NHL
there are so many good defensive players and the game is so well-coached, that
if you try to do the impossible or be real creative, it gets eaten up. Jason had
to learn sometimes it’s better to play safe than it is to play skilled.”
admits it was through Murray that he finally saw the light.
used to think about goals and assists because you want to establish yourself as
an offensive player in the league,” he says. “I figured the best way to
establish myself was to be a top-10 scorer. Bryan talked to me a lot about
rounding my game out and told me I’d get more recognition the more we win and
the more playoff games we play. I haven’t really sacrificed much offense by
playing better defense and that was probably the toughest thing to grasp.”
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