Spezza fulfils leadership promise

A more mature Jason Spezza has stepped up on the ice — and as a leader in the Senators' dressing...

A more mature Jason Spezza has stepped up on the ice — and as a leader in the Senators' dressing room. (DARREN BROWN/Ottawa Sun)

Tim Baines, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 6:27 PM ET

Even when Jason Spezza was an offensive maestro, rattling off seasons of 90, 87 and 92 points, there was still criticism.

His lopsided grins and giggles during interviews were sometimes misconstrued as indifference.

His fancy passes sometimes proved costly when they found enemy sticks.

Later, as the point totals dwindled, there was talk of him being traded.

Somewhere along the way, on the Senators’ rollercoaster ride that has included both an appearance in the Stanley Cup final and a deflating playoff miss, so much has changed for the 28-year-old, who carries a $7-million salary cap hit through 2015. The kid, who was always destined for stardom, just needed to put the pieces of the puzzle together to get there.

Start with the numbers: 84 points this season, 232 shots and a 53.5% faceoff success rate.

Off the ice, he’s more guarded, more mature. With wife Jennifer, he has two children — Sophia and Nicola, born April 1.

“He went through some success, then maybe had some hard times. In those hard times, I think you learn a lot about yourself,” said Senators winger Nick Foligno.

“He was trying to be almost too good or too nice around the media, that part, for me, has disappeared,” said GM Bryan Murray. “That’s part of the maturity. His approach is very professional. His approach to everything is much better.

“You have to be young people at some point. You play this game early on ... you want to have fun with the game, you want to enjoy the experience. I think Jason has gone through that phase. He wants to be a star in the league and he wants to be a leader on the team.”

“It’s not always going to be easy. There are going to be peaks and valleys,” Spezza told the Sun earlier this year. “I’m probably a little more mature in my game than I was in the past, so I’m probably more patient than I was. Before, if I went four games (without scoring), I’d probably be pulling my hair out and not seeing the good things that have gone on.”

He’s gaining recognition as one of the NHL’s top performers — legitimately in the conversation when the discussion turns to the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s most valuable player.

“Obviously (Evgeni) Malkin and (Sidney) Crosby are great players, but I look to Spezza, he does stuff ... some nights, you’re just: ‘Wow,’ said winger Chris Neil. “He’s an elite player and game in and game out, he shows it. He’s a competitive guy and that’s who you want to go to war with.”

“On our team, he’s been real important,” said coach Paul MacLean. “He makes our offence go every night - between him and Erik Karlsson ... there could be an argument who should be the Hart Trophy candidate off our team. Jason has really been a consistent, consistent player for us this year. And when our team’s played well, it’s really a direct indication of how well Jason’s played.”

Spezza is stepping up in the dressing room. Presumably, Daniel Alfredsson will soon step aside as captain, and the alternate captain is a logical successor.

“Alfie seems to get younger, I don’t think (he’s retiring) anytime soon,” joked Foligno. “But (Jason’s) taken this team and really become a leader and made it his own. He’s on the hotstove each and every night and he’s able to perform. He realized he needed to be a big-time leader for us, a vocal leader in the room, as well as a player on the ice.”

“He’s always been a leader,” said Neil. “He’s a guy who likes taking control of stuff. I don’t think much has changed. He’s always been that guy.”

“He’s taken ownership of the team,” said Murray. “Whether he wears a C or not, he’s one of those guys that commands respect.”

Foligno said MacLean has had a hand in pushing Spezza to the next level.

“Paul came in and challenged (Jason) to become one of the best,” said Foligno. “Jason’s the kind of guy ... he’s real competitive, he’s taken it upon himself to try and attain that goal. I think of him as one of the most elite players in the game ... all the guys in this locker room do.”

His decision-making and defensive play have also improved.

“Nobody likes to see the puck turned over,” said Murray. “When they’re completed, the passes are unbelievable and the goals come. When they’re missed, they look bad at times. He has really cut that number down a great deal.”

“He’s more of an all-around player,” said Neil. “He’s paying attention to details ... he takes pride in his faceoffs. You can’t say enough about that.”

Spezza is amped about the opportunity to return to the quest for hockey’s Holy Grail.

“You get a chance to win a Stanley Cup. You only get so many cracks at it,” said Spezza.

“It’s so hard to make the playoffs. When you have that opportunity, you want to seize the moment.”

That moment begins Thursday in New York against the Rangers.


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