Spezza gets defensive

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

On the surface, it appears Jason Spezza's bid to become a more complete player this season is off to a rocky start.

Through three games, his minus-4 gives him a better such rating than only one other NHLer -- St. Louis Blues sniper Brad Boyes is minus-5 -- and Spezza is dead last in the league with a "home games" rating of minus-4.

Spezza isn't overly concerned with such numbers at this time of the year, however. Nor should he be.

"If you go back and watch the goals, it's been tough luck some times," he said yesterday. "Two, I've just stepped on the ice ... I was on the ice for the bad change the other night. If 40 games in I'm still minus-10, I'll start getting worried about it. But three games is tough ... we're really getting nitpicky if you're looking at your stats at this point I think."

Spezza, who has a goal and two assists so far, was held off the sheet in Saturday's loss to Detroit. On a night when the Senators couldn't get much going offensively, he had just two shots on goal to go with a minus-2.

Hence the grilling of a star.

"We've played three games," he said rather incredulously when asked how he feels his performance has been to date. "I played good in the game we won, and pretty good in the (first) game we lost, and last game wasn't my best game. But we've only played three games. We've got to get in a bit of flow here before I start evaluating how my season is going."

Coach Craig Hartsburg was less hesitant in discussing the subject, although he made it clear he wasn't impressed with the criticism Spezza received from coach-turned-commentator John Tortorella last week.

"I certainly don't appreciate when other people bash our players," said Hartsburg. " I think it's like your own son ... it's okay if you say something about him, but you don't want anybody else in the neighbourhood to say anything about him."

And what does Hartburg have to say about Spezza's play?

"I think Jason's game is still not where he wants it to be, or where we want it to be," he said. "I think he's working at it.

"He's been a little bit inconsistent, but I think when he's been good, I really liked how he played, and there's been other parts of the game where I know he can do more and I know he can be better.

"We've had some good talks here in the last couple of days and he's got to continue on that path just like the rest of them.

"With Jason, we're trying to help him, we're trying to find solutions for him, to make him a better player. It's easy to be negative and to criticize any player, but I think as a coach you have to give him a solution. You can't just tell a player to work harder. There's more to the game than that.

"People talk about turnovers, this and that ... great offensive players live on the edge. I'm not saying you have to live with it, but there are some ways you can try to teach them or promote, OK, you do this a little different and maybe that puck won't get turned over.

"His practice habits and the way he's approached everything for me have been great. He's been as hard a worker as we've had in practice. There will be some rewards for him as a player."

NICK OF TIME

As someone who played against one and coaches the other, Hartsburg sees similar characteristic traits in Mike Foligno and his son Nick. Specifically, it's about the determination.

"Seems like every goal he scores is (like that)," Hartsburg said when talking about the jumping up and splitting of defenders Nick managed in lighting the lamp Saturday. "He stays very determined on the puck in those situations, where other guys may lose focus on whether they're going to get hit or whatever. That's courage to me. He puts himself in position to where he wants to score and make something happen, with the risk that he may get run over. When you do that, you might get run over, but you might also score a real nice goal. To me that was just second effort, to stay with it and out-compete people to get the goal."

"That was his dad. His dad scored some goals like that, and was an extremely hard guy to play against. You don't want to say they're the same players, but I think there's certainly some comparisons in their character, for sure."

Foligno, who is currently pencilled in to be the new winger on the Spezza-Dany Heatley line Friday, said he's trying to be an "impact guy" for the Senators by working hard and raising his energy level. But will he be a consistent scorer?

"It's too early to tell but you know what, honestly, I want to be," he said. "I want to be someone who's relied on. I don't know if it's as a scorer or just a responsible player, but I want to be someone who's relied on by the coaches and the players to get the job done."

As for a spot on the big line, he added: "It's a nice role to be in, and you've got to make sure you're working hard, because you can get it in a second and you can lose it in a second."

Ice chIps

D Chris Phillips will test his bruised, shot-blocking leg at practice today. He expects he'll be able to stick it in front of more shots Friday night. "It's already getting better," he said. "It's nice we had the day off, that we just worked out today. There hasn't been too much swelling. It should be fine."


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