OTTAWA – A trying start to the season just got a little more frustrating for Jason Spezza after he learned he’ll miss the next six to eight weeks with a torn right knee ligament.
The Ottawa Senators revealed Wednesday that they likely will be without their star centre until play resumes following February’s Olympic break.
Spezza was hurt with 30 seconds remaining in Monday’s 3-2 loss at Toronto when Maple Leafs forward Lee Stempniak fell on his right leg and an MRI Tuesday night discovered the tear.
“They’re kind of giving me that as a timeline right now, but I’m just going to see how it goes and obviously try and get back a little sooner,” Spezza said following the team’s morning skate. “It’s obviously disappointing and whenever you get hurt, it’s never a good thing.
“I’m just looking forward now and trying to move forward and get better.”
Now in his seventh NHL season, the 26-year-old was off to a slow start with just five goals and 14 assists in 30 games, and on pace for his worst offensive output since recording 21 points in 33 games as a rookie.
Spezza, who’s eclipsed the 30-goal mark in three straight seasons and recorded at least 90 points in two of the past four years, went the first 10 games of the year without a goal and missed the next two contests with a back injury before finally notching his first goal of the season. He then went another nine games before scoring again.
That performance effectively ended the slim chances he had of cracking Canada’s Olympic roster after he was a late invite to Hockey Canada’s development camp in August when Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf withdrew with a back injury.
With fans and the media piling on Spezza for his performance, for which he’s being paid US$8 million this season, he was finally starting to show signs of life with goals in each of the past two games and three in the last five. That makes the timing of the injury that much tougher to swallow for him.
“I had a bit of tough start and just started playing a little better, but it’s part of sport and there’s never a good time to get hurt,” he said.
With Spezza and his salary-cap hit of $7 million on the shelf and little room remaining under the cap to make a deal, the Senators are now left trying to fill the void internally.
Although his stats don’t necessarily show it, his loss makes a big impact on the team’s lineup.
“He plays 19 and a half, 20 minutes a game,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said Wednesday. “He draws attention, he opens up space. It’s easy to say he hasn’t played that well but he will be missed.
“We’ll just have to make do and find ways to win.”
With centre Mike Fisher on pace for a career year with 14 goals in his first 30 games, it’s not likely the Senators can ask for much more than he’s already giving, so that means role players will be pushed to pick up the slack.
Fans will remember that during the 2006-07 season, before the Senators made their one and only run to the Stanley Cup final, Spezza and fellow centre Mike Fisher also missed significant periods of time with knee injuries.
Chris Kelly filled in admirably on the team’s top line in Spezza’s absence, although the Senators also had Dany Heatley to share the load back then along with Daniel Alfredsson.
The time, it’s players like Jesse Winchester who will be asked to help out, with the 26-year-old expected to join Alfredsson and Milan Michalek on the team’s top line.
“I guess there’s added pressure, but I’ve just got to approach it the way you approach any other games,” said Winchester, 26, who went into the Buffalo game with two goals and four assists in 16 games this season.
Defenceman Chris Campoli, who’s been a healthy scratch recently, practised as a forward Wednesday and may wind up playing up front.
“I feel good about the opportunity (to get back in the lineup),” said Campoli, who hasn’t played forward since he was in minor hockey.
“I’m talking five-or six-year-old,” he said. “So it’s going to be a challenge for me.”