Spezza's back on right track

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

There's new glass on the end boards at Scotiabank Place for this season.

It's the old-school stuff, with the metal dividers between the panes, and it rocks and rolls and waves when there's a big hit.

So, who was one of the first guys to try it out yesterday in the Senators Red and White scrimmage? Defenceman Anton Volchenkov was the guy on the receiving end and the guy giving out the hit was Jason Spezza.

He was noticeable yesterday not just for his usual puck wizardry, but for the way he got involved physically.

In addition to his hit on Volchenkov, he also threw a pretty good shoulder into winger Peter Schaefer along the boards, something Schaefer didn't appreciate.

Schaefer swiped his stick in Spezza's direction and they exchanged death stares as they skated to their respective benches.

"He whacked me," chuckled Spezza. "It was fun to get competitive again. I think we're all itching to play some other guys."

STRONG WEEKEND

The 22-year-old centre looked good, very good, in the scrimmage Saturday and in yesterday's game in front of a bowl full of fans and that's good news, very good news, given Spezza is coming off major back surgery.

It's never good when your 22-year-old No. 1 centre has back trouble. At that point in his career, a kid like that should be working hard to get better as a player, but it's tough to do when you have to drag a leg around.

Spezza refuses to use it as an excuse, but the herniated disc in his lower back really impacted his game last spring. He had to endure shooting pains down his leg and it was all he could do to cope with practice most days, though he wasn't complaining publicly.

"At the end of the year, I was just getting through days, I was not getting better ... I was just trying to stay in shape to play the games," shrugged Spezza after yesterday's scrimmage.

"Part of it was overuse, part of it is genetic, part of it is just getting hit and the wear and tear. That might sound funny for a 22-year-old, but that's the way it is."

The surgery took 3-1/2 hours in May and there was some concern if Spezza would be 100% for opening night.

But given the way he was throwing himself around yesterday and the way he has impressed coach Bryan Murray with his work ethic and competitiveness in skating drills, it appears Spezza is just fine.

"I was just trying to test it," he said of his physical play yesterday. "Plus, I was getting pretty frustrated because it was a pretty scrambly game, so I figured I would throw a couple of bumps in.

"It's been better than I expected, to be honest. But we played with five lines and I got about 12 minutes (of ice time), so we'll see how it feels after playing a full game."

A healthier back will put Spezza in a position to put more effort into practice and get more out of it.

"It is something I'm going to key on," he said yesterday, "to work hard on being a better player and a better example."

"His back was bothersome at the end of the year," said Murray. "There was nothing he could do of a real strenuous nature, but I think that's been resolved and I think his mindset now is he can be a real competitive guy at both ends of the rink ... at least I hope that's the case."

Murray and Spezza have already had some heart-to-hearts, addressing what we've just been talking about here, working hard in practice, being an example to teammates, being a more complete player.

Senators fans would probably like to bring up those drop passes and turnovers at the other team's blue line.

NECESSARY EVIL

Spezza wasn't making any apologies yesterday, pointing out that turnovers are a necessary evil for creative players (Spezza was second in the NHL in assists last year with 71 in 68 games).

You have to take the good with the occasional groaner.

"Hey, look around the league," said Spezza. "Who are the guys who lead the league in giveaways? Guys like (Peter) Forsberg. (Jaromir) Jagr. The high-assist guys. I know I have to be more aware of the time of the game, what the score is, how you're playing.

"I'm going to have a better idea when to take the risk and when not to."

As far as playing better defensively, Spezza has a plan for that, too: If he's got the puck, the other guys don't.

"I'm going to try and hang onto the puck longer in the offensive zone and be more patient," he said. "I'm going to work harder on faceoffs, so we get possession, and on keeping my shift lengths down. All the little things they harp on."

As a work in progress, he knows he has to progress in his work.


Videos

Photos