Jason Spezza has, and will always be, a divisive figure on this team, for reasons both fair and unfair. As I said during our inaugural Scotchcast, he’s a creative player who seems to pass to where another player with similar anticipation would have been, rather to where the players who he’s on a line with actually are. As a result, when his plans go awry, they seem to do so in spectacular fashion. I mean, I get it: it’s frustrating for a team that spends as little time in the attacking zone as Ottawa does to have its highly skilled, highly paid captain then whip the puck to an empty spot on the ice, effectively clearing it for the opposition.
That’s why this team went out and got Bobby Ryan, a player who excels at finding the open ice, at anticipating his playmaker, and at getting a shot off in small spaces. He seemed like a perfect compliment to Spezza. Instead, we’ve learned that Ryan can make plays too, and fits almost perfectly on a line with MacArthur and Turris, two well-rounded players who drive the possession game and make smart, simple plays consistently. Spezza and Ryan look lost together, perhaps because it’s not clear who’s driving the boat. The M-T-R line knows that you’re trying to find Ryan for the shot, and both of Ryan’s linemates are smart enough to read the situation and flow with it.
As a result, Spezza is looking a little bit lost out there. MacLean is cycling through line mates, but it’s tough to find a compliment for a free-wheeling playmaker who prefers the low-percentage, counterintuitive strategy to the traditional playbook. Michalek is invisible at times, neither able to receive nor get off a pass, and Spezza’s right side has been a motley amalgam of Neil, Greening, and Zibanejad. At this point I’m starting to wonder if Zack Smith deserves a shot on Spezza’s wing, and even I have to admit that’s a pretty stupid idea.
I’m not sure what the solution is. Ottawa’s offensive prospects aren’t really anywhere near ready (though one imagines Puempel getting his shot alongside Spezza in 2016-2017). It’s still far too early to target anyone on the trade market, not that Ottawa has the money to take on new salary anyway. And Spezza’s numbers are fantastic to start the season, though that’s buoyed by a few offensive outbursts rather than consistent production.
It’s not that I’m at all concerned, and I definitely don’t share the hate-on that some seem to have for Spezza. A few atonal improve-jazz moments are more than worth it for a point-a-game center making less than market value. (Don’t even act like Spezza wouldn’t make $8MM+ if on the free market now.) But I remember the good old days of Spezza with weapons on his wing. There were games when he looked unstoppable. He must also think about playing with an in-their-prime Alfie and Heatley when he looks over and sees Chris Neil charging the goaltender while holding his stick upside-down. As good as he is, we’re not getting the best out of Jason Spezza.
On puck movers and Weircioch
Ottawa’s transition game looked rough again against Montreal, especially in the first. Outside of Karlsson, who’s already playing about 30 minutes a night, there just isn’t anyone back there who knows how to do anything with the puck to start the rush. Cowen made a cross-ice pass in front of his own net that clearly surprised Karlsson, and which Montreal’s strong forecheck promptly turned into a chance to score. Phillips and Methot are far better at muscling someone off the puck than getting the puck to their forwards. And Gryba and Borowiecki are replacement-level AHL call-ups. That leaves the struggling Cowen, who the team has to hope is going to get his head out of his ass soon, and Wiercioch, who has a hell of a pass but who played the most sheltered minutes in the NHL last year, and who is a player more the mould of Anton Babchuck. He can play the point on the powerplay, and he can start in the offensive zone, but MacLean clearly doesn’t have any faith in Patty in the d-zone.
It’s a pretty big gap in Ottawa’s strategy, and it has a domino effect. The defense backs up and concedes all kinds of space knowing they don’t have the stick work or wheels to strip the puck away, and hoping to block a shot or stop the rush in their own end. The forwards have to carry the puck most of the way up the ice, with only MacArthur showing any success because of his reliance on simple and effective chip-and-chase plays along the boards and his excellent speed. Karlsson ends up playing more minutes than maybe he should, which results in him making mistakes. The goaltenders end up facing more shots. It goes on and on. Next thing you know, this team is outshot 2-1.
The inclination has been that Ottawa needs someone who can stop the bleeding because of how many shots the team is allowing. Personally, I think they’re allowing so many shots not because they don’t have their share of solid or all-around defensive players, but because their transition game stinks. And for that, they need to look at where the transition game starts. They need someone who can make a first pass to save his life. Even more than finding a linemate for Spezza, this team needs to find a defenseman who can move the puck. None of Phillips, Gryba, Borowiecki, Methot, or Cowen seem capable of doing that at the moment.
When do the fire sales begin?
You’ve got to feel for Panthers fans (the unicorns of the NHL): they’re about to bottom out again. They’ve already got their last several top five picks in the lineup, and they seem to be stagnating anyway. Huberdeau might be for real, but Gudbranson and Markstrom look like their souls have been crushed. Barkov is young, but already learning how little it matters to succeed in a market like Florida. Bjugstad looks frustrated. The whole team looks thwarted.
Their second-tier prospects are transitioning in, but their veterans have tuned out. (Remember that Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski are somehow on this team.) After finally parting with Stephen Weiss, and many years earlier with their prominent pick Nathan Horton, you have to wonder if they’re stuck in a perpetual mediocre machine. But as pointed out on several blogs, most of the teams in the league are within a couple million dollars of the cap. There just aren’t any trading partners out there in a season where the cap has come down.
Having said that, is anyone else surprised by the repeated mentions of Edmonton being a team ready to blow up its core? Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are already on or approaching their second deals, eating up tons of money and cap space on a team that still has to deal with goaltending and defense. I’m genuinely surprised that they’re this bad, though. With the addition of Ference and a change-up on the team’s bottom six, I thought they were ready to at least be a bubble team. Instead, we’re all talking about who among Edmonton’s elite young players is going to be the next Tyler Seguin. Could this be an opportunity for Ottawa?