Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Jason Spezza and playmaker-scorer for Dallas

By Larry Wigge

Creative. Almost like a chess master, looking to move the pieces around on the chess board in front of him to create checkmate. That's the brilliance of Jason Spezza.

In his second year with Dallas Stars, the 6-3, 220-pounder from Mississauga, Ontario, is reminding some experts in the game of the young, bright prospect in his late teens.

"What you see is what you get with me," Spezza explained in St. Louis. "It's not like I came out of nowhere. People have been looking over me for years. It's like living in a fishbowl where everyone can see everything you've done and every little imperfection they've seen is magnified a thousand times."

Imperfections? Not quite.

In 11 seasons in Ottawa and two season with Dallas, Spezza as recorded the 800th point of his career -- he reached the plateau in 831 games or nearly a point per game. At the same time, he extended his goal streak to six games with two goals against the Blues in a 5-4 overtime loss March 12.

It happened to be the third five-game plus goal streak in his career -- five straight Senators games in 2005-06 and he had a six-game streak in 2009-10.

For the season, Spezza now has 28 goals and 25 assists. For the fifth time in his career he has his eyes on the 30-goal mark.

"Everything he shoots goes in," says coach Lindy Ruff. "You look at the first shot and I think it went through the defenseman's legs and then through the goalie's legs. He had a couple of lasers that he launched on the road in Ottawa and Montreal. He's shooting the puck well. All the goals have been a little bit different, some have been around the net-front and he's had some great shots so right now it's just going good for him."

He makes the perfect complement to first line center Tyler Seguin -- some in Dallas refer Seguin to Mike Modano and Spezza to Joe Nieuwendyk.

Though Spezza was the top-rated player in the 2001 season, he went second to Ilya Kovalchuk. Then-Vancouver Canucks General Manager Brian Burke argued that there were great assets for each player to be picked No. 1 overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. But ...

"Anybody who passes on Jason Spezza will have to swallow real hard," he said loud and clear.

Spezza is one of those high-risk, high-reward players who will try anything -- carrying the puck deftly through traffic without flinching like a high-wire star, or making one of those ooh-and-ahhh behind the back passes -- to make a play that could result in a goal ... and a win.

"He has magical puck skills," Montreal scout Rick Dudley, former general manager in Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Florida, told me draft day.

At 1, Jason won a baby contest. Pictures of his blond curls made him the poster boy for Baby, a Broadway musical back in the summer of 1984. It was Spezz's photo that went on the marquee. A TV commercial for Minute Maid followed. Then there was modeling for clothing for Woolco and Kmart.

Those billboards he mugged for ended when he was 9 or 10 and his parents, Rino, his first hockey coach, and Donna, wanted Jason to be a regular boy ... and do the things other boys did while growing up.

But there was clearly never anything regular about Spezza. He's good at just about anything he does. And hockey was his dream.

"It's all I ever wanted to be," he recalled. "All my time and effort was put into being a hockey player. At 15 or 16, I knew I was going to have a chance to play pro hockey. It was just a matter of how good could I be. My dad was my coach, kind of an intense guy, and he pushed me."

GM Jim Nill acquired Spezza from Ottawa for a host of prospect July 1, 2014. Nill will never look back.

"People don't realize how fast he is and he thinks the game while he's moving at that speed," explained Nill. "Even when he's not feeling good on a night, he can still make things happen. That's what a great player can do."

All I know is there aren't a lot of stickhandlers out there in this generation or any other who has just surpassed one of Wayne Gretzky's many records -- which Spezza has done, entering the Stanley Cup finals of 2007 against Anaheim with multiple points in his last six road playoff games. Gretzky's record of five straight road games with multiple points was set way back in 1988.

Spezza has had to deal with the pressures of similar comparisons because he was a child prodigy in Canada. The kid with the soft hands and creative mind was the subject of stories when he was just 13, when he made a quantum leap from peewee hockey in Mississauga, Ontario, to bantam. At 15, he was already off to major junior hockey and whispers had already started that Jason could be the next Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

The can't-miss tag we often put on these phenoms didn't take as quickly as a Gretzky, Eric Lindros or Sidney Crosby. Perhaps it was because Jason was tall at 6-3 and a little gangly and the rest of the body was still trying to catch up -- similar to, say, a Joe Thornton.

It's no coincidence that Spezza's mind works on the offensive -- and it doesn't stop when he leaves the rink.

"I've got this 62-inch plasma screen in my living room -- and I'm constantly plopping in a tape of Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky or Steve Yzerman, looking for pointers. It's like homework for me," Spezza smiled. "Mario Lemieux was always my guy and that will never change. He would look around and look around and then make the perfect play. It was magical."

And the homework doesn't stop there, either. Spezza is a fan of autobiographies, particularly of athletes who have that ability to be THE MAN such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

"Tiger's really THE MAN," he says. "He doesn't do anything wrong. All he does is win."

Ottawa GM Bryan Murray has pulled out the tapes of a maturing Steve Yzerman, when Stevie Y learned how to be as important to the Red Wings on defense as he had been on offense in his first few years in Detroit.

"Bryan has talked to me a lot about when Steve Yzerman was with him (in Detroit), and at first, he was an all-out offensive player," Spezza said. "And John Muckler tells me the same things about his days in Edmonton, when he had to prod Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and some of those other great Oilers would have to learn to concentrate more on defense ... if they wanted to win."

"I've told Jason that his role has to evolve, that he has to more accountable at both ends of the rink," Murray said. "It's only because I believe in him so much that I single him out in video sessions -- in front of the rest of the team."

You don’t have to hit Spezza over the head with a hammer to make him see what he has to do to be his best.

"It was like a switch was turned on for Jason," former Ottawa teammate Daniel Alfredsson said. "Clearly, no one wanted to take away his creativity. It's just finding a happy medium, a maturing that comes with experience."

Now, it would be safe to say that Spezza's play on the ice -- his accountability -- is beginning to look more like those videos he has studied. And that Jason would look more and more like a Lemieux, Gretzky and Yzerman. Spezza clearly has that innate ability to create something from nothing, to anticipate where the puck and fellow players are going.

Like a chess master, Spezza will be looking for time and space and check ... and mate.

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