The relationship between Jason Spezza and the Ottawa Senators wasn’t at an all-time high during the summer.
The 27-year-old had grown weary of the wringer players in Canadian cities – especially star players – are put through. He quietly asked Sens GM Bryan Murray to explore trade possibilities, which didn’t endear him to a fan base painfully familiar with top talents asking to be relocated.
When there were no takers for the perceived one-dimensional center with five years and $33 million still owed to him, Spezza could have put more behind-the-scenes pressure on Murray to move him or thrown discretion to the wind with a no-show at training camp.
Instead, Spezza returned to the team (a) harboring no grudges; and (b) as committed to improving his defensive play as at any point in his previous seven NHL seasons. During the off-season, he continued to focus on becoming more of a shooter, putting a net behind his house for target practice. He also understood the organization wanted him to be better defensively and on faceoffs, so he worked at those aspects as well.
The results didn’t come right away this season, for him or the team. A groin injury caused Spezza to miss half of Ottawa’s first 10 games and score just once the entire month of October; meanwhile, the Senators posted a 4-6-1 record out of the gate and desperately needed more from all their players.
In early November, Spezza broke through, scoring three goals and seven points in three games. More importantly, his efforts away from the puck won him the cautious confidence of coach Cory Clouston and the added on-ice responsibilities that go along with it.
“He’s made a lot of strides in little areas,” Clouston said of Spezza. “Faceoffs have been very good; we’ve got him on the penalty kill now at times and he’s getting more comfortable with that. We’re still working on expanding his role, including those areas that don’t always show up on the scoresheet.”
Spezza, naturally, is pleased.
“I think things have turned out well,” he said. “It’s been a bit up-and-down because of our play as a team, but when we play our best hockey, we can beat anyone. And for me personally, there’s been more of an expanded role.
“I just want to be put in situations to help out in all different areas. I’ve gotten that opportunity from the coach and gained his confidence. Now I’m just trying to make the most of that.”
Spezza bore the brunt of fan frustration in Ottawa last year. He was the target of Scotiabank Place boos when the Sens were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Pittsburgh and his pleasant nature is often mistaken for a lack of competitive fire. Now he’s discovering there are many different ways to a fan’s heart.
“One of the biggest things for me was realizing I could contribute night in and night out without having to score or be on the scoresheet…because I’ve always been looked to for scoring and creating offense,” Spezza said. “But now I’m contributing in other ways. Some of my best games this year have been nights I didn’t have any points, but played real well.”
Clouston chalks it all up to a change in philosophy.
“We’re trying to stress with Jason that every time he enters the offensive zone or touches the puck, it doesn’t mean a scoring chance will happen,” Clouston said. “Part of the process is trying to understand when and when not to create something.
“But Jason has been very receptive to working on his game. It’s a work-in-progress, but there’s definitely been improvement.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 20 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
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