Jason Spezza has been one of the best playmakers since the lockout. He's been averaging a point per game throughout his career. His size and speed make him the focal point for the opposition when he's on the ice.
Fans in Ottawa tend to forget these facts and solely focus on the downside of Spezza's game. Often times he tries to be "too creative" with his no-look passes, and some of them have found their way back into the Senators zone. There was even a point in the Stanley Cup Playoffs where he would touch the puck and was booed unrelentlessly by the home crowd.
Coach Cory Clouston admitted that he can see how the fans can make Spezza out to be the scapegoat, but also said he believes it's unfair. He also stated that Spezza's defensive game has improved drastically over the last year and that he's working on becoming the complete player the organization needs him to be.
Spezza has just concluded the second year of a seven-year/$49 million contract and is slated to be a Senator for the duration of the deal. That's a bold statement on its own when you consider that Spezza doesn't have a no-trade clause.
Everyone from the media to the bleachers at Scotiabank Place has been questioning Spezza in virtually every category. Whether it's his leadership, defensive play or his intuition to make blind passes, he will hear the jeers before getting any praise for his effort.
It's mind-boggling, really.
It's amusing to see when fans of any team demand they run their top player out of town because he's underachieving and think that they'll be in the clear from that point on. It's too bad these kinds of players don't grow on trees.
There's one thing that separates Spezza from Dany Heatley and Alexei Yashin—he wants to play in Ottawa.
Why don't Sens fans consider that before booing him? Why are they so quick to bash his defensive abilities when he makes the players around him better?
The Detroit Red Wings were in this situation in the early 90s as well. They had somebody who was given a big role at a young age and while he put up great numbers, he was often criticized for his play in his own zone. There were multiple trade rumours surrounding him, but instead he remained with the team and became one of the best players in NHL history.
His name was Steve Yzerman. You might have heard of him.
Before Yzerman was considered one of the greatest leaders of all-time, there was no indication of how his story would end. He was a high draft pick who put up spectacular numbers in Detroit, but coach Scotty Bowman and his staff weren't sure how Yzerman would fit into the plans regarding winning championships.
To that point, Yzerman's only championship on his resume was a Canada Cup victory in 1984. Bowman and his coaching staff worked day after day on helping Yzerman enhance his defensive game. It wasn't long before his abilities in his own zone and in the faceoff category became greater.
Before anybody knew it, the man they call "Stevie Y" had four Stanley Cup rings—three as a player—and a Conn Smythe trophy in 1998 for his play in big games. His trophy list wasn't big by the end of his career, but he also managed to pick up the 2000 Selke trophy for best defensive forward in the league, as well as a Masterton trophy in 2003 for his dedication and perseverance during an injury-plagued season.
All stats aside, Spezza's progress can be compared to Yzerman's in more ways than one.
Many could argue that players learn how to lose before they learn how to win. For Yzerman, his first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals came in 1995 at the age of 30. By comparison, Spezza has already made it to the dance in 2007, but was much younger at 24 years old.
Yzerman and the Red Wings were on top of the league for much of the next decade, thanks in large part to the core which included Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan and Igor Larionov. Along with the owners, management and scouting staff, the Red Wings are still seen as a model franchise to this day.
Things are a little different in Ottawa.
Since making it to the Finals in 2007, they have failed to win a playoff series. Although Clouston has been doing a great job behind the bench, the team went through three different coaches in two calendar years. The goaltending carousel has seen the likes of Martin Gerber, Ray Emery and Alex Auld leave town with Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott remaining as the present tandem.
Watching all-star talent such as Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden and Dany Heatley leave town hasn't made things easier. Salary cap restrictions have made it hard for GM Bryan Murray to bring high-priced free agents to town, forcing him to insert inexperienced players into the lineup from the club's once-depleted farm system.
The Senators are a younger team with a different attitude and are relying on Spezza to be the offensive catalyst that he's paid to be. He did average over a point per game down the stretch and in the playoffs, but he is still working on being a complete player that can make contributions even if it's not on the scoreboard.
It's understandable to be frustrated with Spezza. He's teased many people with his talents and have left fans wanting more every year since he's been in the league. But just getting rid of him would cause more of a problem than it would solve.
With Spezza's current cap hit, it is virtually impossible to find a team willing to give up full value of for the playmaking centreman. Not to mention it's not a "forced trade" as the Dany Heatley deal was last summer.
Unless the perfect deal comes for Murray and the Senators, Spezza will be sporting the red, black and gold in the fall. Quite honestly, there should be no problem with that.
Spezza has stated that he wants to remain in Ottawa. He's newly married and lives in Ottawa throughout the year, even despite being born in Toronto. Ottawa is his home and that's just the way he likes it.
We have a talented player with a lot of potential that has been improving on doing little things well to make him the best team player he can be.
Don't get on his back if he makes a mistake when he's trying too hard. Don't start running him out of town and expect to get a Sidney Crosby or Pavel Datsyuk in return as a top pivot.
Embrace the contributions he makes and the effort he puts into his game night after night. He'll get there, don't worry.
Make him feel like he belongs in Ottawa. Otherwise, we might not know what we've got if we lose him.