Jason Spezza realizes he is in the prime of his career.
He’s entering his eighth NHL season and he has learned some valuable lessons, both on and off the ice.
Drafted second in 2001 behind Ilya Kovalchuk, Spezza understands that he was projected to one day challenge for the league scoring title. The time for that, he knows, should be now.
But ask Spezza to talk about finally surpassing the 100-point mark this season, and you do not get the same type of enlightening answer you might have when he was younger.
Ask him almost anything, in fact, and the reply will be straightforward and bland.
Gone, it seems, is the Spezza who used to clearly enjoy the daily banter with reporters around his stall.
Gone is the endearing, trademark chuckle that set him apart.
Gone, at least temporarily, are the colourful, thoughtful quotes.
Spezza is becoming almost as fun to interview as the Russian who wore No. 19 before him. That’s just one way to look at this new version of Ottawa’s top-paid player, and it’s neither here nor there to the people who only want this team to win.
Spezza has matured, they say. He’s more of a team player, more of a leader. He’s better prepared to take the next step in his career, and that should be of great benefit to the Senators.
“My goals this year are a little bit different,” Spezza said when asked about hitting the triple-digit mark.
“I’m not really setting personal goals. I’m just trying to work on different aspects of my game. The numbers will come. I’m not really setting any specific numerical goals.”
Spezza has his reasons for becoming withdrawn, more businesslike.
As the team’s go-to guy, he was ridiculed and criticized most when the Senators suffered a disappointing playoff loss to the Penguins last season.
The booing at Scotiabank Place hurt him. He told GM Bryan Murray, in a private meeting, that if what was best for the team was to trade him, then do it. That conversation got out and was misinterpreted, and Spezza stock fell even further in this town.
Damage control started, finally, at the charity golf tournament Spezza hosts in Ottawa every year, when he gave his first interviews and explained his side of the story.
Any questions about his mental state and commitment level were answered in summer-time meetings with Murray and coach Cory Clouston.
Last month, Spezza, a new, first-time father, returned to Ottawa with a determined stride.
“I feel good,” he said more than once. “I had a real good summer. I trained hard and I want to have a good year. I’m excited about the season.”
Spezza had a jump in his step from the first day of training camp. He scored four goals and had four assists in four pre-season games. He’s more than ready to go.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Clouston said. “I knew he was going to come in with the right attitude, after the discussions we’ve had and the adversity he faced during the summer. I thought he handled it very well. He came into camp in excellent shape. He’s been outstanding as far as in the video room and as far as team meetings. His play shows that.”
Spezza, who has mostly been criticized for the turnovers he commits trying to make great, high-risk plays, is starting to get a better understanding of what he can/should and cannot/should not do, according to Clouston.
“We want all our players to expand their roles to a certain extent,” said Clouston. “We want them to be a little more responsible with the puck, a little more responsible without the puck ... Jason is in a perfect situation where he’s ready to be that player I think he wants to be.
“He’s always been looked towards for scoring goals and putting points on the board. But what we want now is for him to do that, but at the right time. The way the game has evolved, what he might have been able to do a couple years ago, the way teams checked and defend, maybe those type of plays aren’t always there.”
It’s all part of growing up, and into, a team leader.
“I’ve been around a little bit longer. I’m maturing,” said Spezza. “I’m understanding what I have to do a little bit differently to help our team out.”
Spezza has had 87-, 90- and 92-point seasons. If he stays healthy, he should threaten the 100-point mark, if not eclipse it. He’ll also become a better all-round player and leader, as his actions will speak louder than his words, which really aren’t saying much at all.