Jason Spezza has never received a fair shake from the Ottawa fans and media.
Somebody had to say it.
On the surface, it seems like a ludicrous comment, given that Spezza is entering his tenth season in the organization. What’s next? Am I going to suggest that John Ferguson Jr. deserves another chance to run the Maple Leafs?
But if you read along with this blog and promise to stay neutral, I have a feeling you might change your tune slightly about Jason Spezza.
Now, let’s start with the summer of 2001 when this whole ordeal began. Other than Spezza, can you name another blue-chip prospect who was drafted in the top two overall by a Stanley Cup contender?
Off the top of my head and with some quick perusing of hockeydb.com, here is the list I came up with:
Doug Wickenheiser. Guy Lafleur. Spezza
It’s a pretty small list in the past 40 years.
What happened to Spezza is that he was not granted the honeymoon period that most top draft picks enjoy. Like Wickenheiser and Lafleur before him, he was immediately thrown into the fire and expected to play at the same level as the rest of the players who were vying for a Stanley Cup.
Meantime, Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk and other players drafted around the same time as Spezza were given plenty of leeway by their respective fan bases. The expectations were low and these guys were allowed to be the face of the franchise.
While we are quick to praise the development of Nash and Kovalchuk, has anybody bothered to see how many playoff series they have won?
The answer is zero.
(In case you’re wondering, Nash and Kovalchuk have combined to win ONE PLAYOFF GAME between them. That happened this season, when Kovalchuk’s Devils squeaked out a Game 2 win against the Flyers.)
Yet most people would rather take Nash and Kovalchuk over Spezza in a heartbeat.
Because from Day 1, we’ve been conditioned to label Jason Spezza as an underachiever in our city. It started with the comment from Jacques Martin when he was cut in training camp in 2001, “This is a man’s league and he’s still a boy.” It intensified when he was made a healthy scratch in the 2004 playoffs. And the feeling that Spezza is never quite giving enough has never gone away.
But it’s time to re-think the way we perceive Jason Spezza in Ottawa.
Yes, he turns over the puck sometimes and makes bad decisions. But guess what? So do Kovalchuk and Nash. (It’s just that you don’t bother to watch 82 Blue Jackets and Thrashers games. And I totally don’t blame you).
He collects as many points as Kovalchuk and Nash in the regular season. Only eight active NHLers entered last season having played 300 games and collected more than 300 points. Yes, the chronic underachiever Spezza was one of them.
And for the record, he doesn’t disappear in the playoffs, having produced at a point-per-game pace.
In short, Jason Spezza been as productive as the two most comparable players drafted near him — Kovalchuk and Nash — but we’ve been too uppity to appreciate it. Sometimes, our love and passion for the Canadian game creates unfair expectation levels for the players who play in our cities. I’ll bet you that if Spezza played the first nine years of his career for the Florida Panthers, you’d be drooling all over him.
But we seem to run our own star athletes out of town. And now in Ottawa, we’re going to get a reputation of being Edmonton East; a city that is an undesirable destination for free agents.
When Alexei Yashin, Ray Emery and Dany Heatley all left town, there was an element of the spoiled, modern athlete behind their exits. So we can blame the athlete as much as anything for those nasty divorces.
But I can assure you that isn’t the case with Spezza. Yes, he’s making $7 million per season, but his personality hasn’t drastically changed in the past decade. He still has the same infectious smile and laugh that have made him one of the most likeable personalities that has ever graced the Senators dressing room.
When a likeable, approachable and productive sports star might want to leave our city, what does that say about us? Spezza’s unhappiness in Ottawa is an indictment on us as sports fans and media. (Remember, we’re the geniuses who almost ran Daniel Alfredsson out of town.)
Players should be criticized when they struggle. I hate being an apologist for the modern athlete. Lord knows they have it easy enough on so many levels.
But when a player puts together the kind of career that Spezza has — and gets booed by his own fans — at some point we need to say that part of the problem lies with us.
Our expectation levels are way out of whack. We’d probably find something wrong with Sidney Crosby if we just had him in a Canadian city. Heck, we were ready to roast him at the Olympics until he scored that overtime goal.
Our unrealistic expectation levels might play a part in why we haven’t won a Stanley Cup in this country since internet chatrooms were invented.
Now, let’s take one more trip down memory lane.
Ten years ago, a selfish Russian superstar wanted more money from the Ottawa Senators. Alexei Yashin was traded out of town because his greed and personality did not fall in line with the values of our city.
What we wanted was a Canadian-born centre to take Yashin’s place; a guy who could produce at the same level as the Russian star, without the high drama; a player who was committed to our community for the long-term.
We got him.
And now we’re ready to run him out of town.