Judging by all the chatter out there – and where there’s smoke, there’s fire – it looks as though the Ottawa Senators are going to cut ties with Jason Spezza sometime before or during the entry draft in Philadelphia.
Which, on some levels, makes sense. The Jason Spezza that played the first half of the season and scored just nine goals and 28 points in 39 games? Yeah, trade him. The Spezza who played just five games in 2012-13 and has begun to break down physically? Ship him out. The Spezza who can sometimes be a turnover machine? Get him out of here. The Spezza who is a year removed from unrestricted free agency and will undoubtedly want a long-term contract? Hard to argue trading him shouldn’t at least be explored.
But the question remains, and it’s a big one, is how are the Senators going to replace what Spezza has given them over the course of his career? Say what you want about Spezza, but when he is healthy and productive, he is an elite talent in the NHL and one of its most consistent point producers. At his best, Spezza is good for at least 80 points a year. That’s a commodity that is indeed in very short supply in today’s NHL.
I did a quick scan of the other NHL teams today looking for players who are currently still playing for the teams that drafted and developed them. I looked for players in that category who have played more games than the 686 Spezza has played for the Senators and I came up with 13. (Duncan Keith, coincidentally, has played exactly that many games for the Chicago Blackhawks.) It’s a group that could be reduced significantly this summer, since Martin Brodeur, Eric Staal and Henrik and Daniel Sedin are on the list.
It is not an insignificant feat that Spezza has managed to stay in Ottawa this long. And to lay much of the blame for the Senators struggles this season at his feet might be just a little far-fetched. Once he came back after missing four games in January, Spezza was one of the Senators best players and was back to his point-per-game self with 14 goals and 36 points in the Senators final 36 games. He instantly found chemistry and success when the Senators got Ales Hemsky at the trade deadline. Rather than move Spezza and hope to get a defenseman, a prospect and a high pick in return, would it not make just as much sense to try to sign Hemsky to a new deal and have two-thirds of your top line intact?
All we ever heard about when Mats Sundin played in Toronto was that he did not have the kind of linemates who could make his full array of talents appreciated. And for the most part, it was a fair point. But have you seen the conga line of third- and fourth-line wingers with who Spezza has played over the past few years? With the puck on his stick, Spezza is still one of the most creative and dangerous centers in the NHL. He finally found a winger in Hemsky who could bring out the best in him and when that happened, he was one of the top offensive players in the league down the stretch.
Without Spezza, the Senators have Kyle Turris, Zack Smith, Mike Hoffman and Mika Zibanejad down the middle. Not exactly a murderers’ row of pivots, is it? Spezza, meanwhile, will likely be moved to the Western Conference - St. Louis and Colorado are looking like a probable landing spots – where the game is much more of a grind and where Spezza would be forced to go nose-to-nose with some big, strong and physical centers.
Sounds like a situation fraught with risk for both the buyer and the seller. His contract, which takes up $7 million in cap space and costs only $4 million in real money, would be very attractive to some teams, including the suddenly budget-conscious Senators, you’d have to think. So if I’m GM Bryan Murray, I’m swallowing hard before making that deal.