Let me be clear: I am not a Jason Spezza hater.
Rather, I think he’s a sublime offensive player whose long tenure in Ottawa has led to his skills being taken for granted; a lightning rod for Ottawa’s inconsistent play in a post-Alfie world; and an easy target for the character-and-grit brigade in Ottawa. (Just yesterday The Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan called for Ottawa to claim Zenon Konopka off of waivers. That should give you an idea of the mindset.) With every drop pass to nobody, Spezza earns another round of tongue clucking from a group that thinks that every complex problem can be reduced to common sense and hard work. I am not one of these people.
I am, however, a dork for asset management, and Jason Spezza presents an interesting case study in whether or not the time is right to maximize one’s return on an expensive and elite player. Finding a partner with cap space, cash, and the fact that Spezza has a no trade clause makes all of this highly unlikely. But even considering trading Spezza opens up a number of interesting possibilities, questions about the identity of this team, and the best way to build a winner.
First, Jay-Jay’s Production
Spezza, for all of his highly visible mistakes (which, I maintain, are a byproduct of his being a creative playmaker), is a productive center. His 30 points in 39 games is respectable; his career production is even higher; his possession statistics are positive, if not astounding (and nowhere near the best on the team at even strength); up until this year he drew more penalties than he took. He’s produced despite playing with a rotating cast of wingers, including noted offensive powerhouses Eric Condra and Chris Neil. He’s not entirely sheltered, playing against the opposition’s weaker lines, but being deployed in all three zones by virtue of his ability to win faceoffs.
He’s been playing long enough to get a clear picture of what you can expect: a consistent offensive producer, if one with defensive deficiencies and an injury history. You could argue he’s one of the ten best playmakers in the league, depending on the type of team and how they use him. He is, however, having a bit of a down season. The team scores about 12.2% more of the time without him on the ice.
Put another way: in a down year, Jason Spezza still puts up 30 points in 39 games. He’s only 30 years old.
His Contract Looks Great
Spezza’s production is well established, but he’s also on the kind of contract that GMs drool over. First, he’s not on an expiring deal, meaning that a team wouldn’t need to give up assets for what could turn out to be a rental. Second, the real money on his contract is only $5MM this year and $4MM next—which is insane value put next to other players in his strata. (Ryan Getzlaf’s salary goes up to almost $9MM next year.) There’s not much on the free agent market for those who miss out on Joe Thornton, unless you consider Paul Stastny or David Legwand legit top line centers. And finally, with the salary cap going up next year, there should be a number of teams who can make room for Spezza’s $7MM cap hit.
His Role on This Team
Jason Spezza is a better offensive option for the Ottawa Senators than Kyle Turris or Mika Zibanejad. (Analysis!) And therein lies the question of what kind of team Ottawa wants to be. Right now they’re offensively potent and defensively porous, relying on engines Spezza and Karlsson to outscore the competition. If the team rolled four lines and traded Spezza for a defenseman and/or a well-rounded power forward, does that mean they could provide a more balanced attack?
Interestingly, with Spezza’s injury over the past few games, we’ve had a look at what Ottawa would look like with Turris and Zibanejad as their 1A and 1B centers. While it’s a miniscule sample size, the results have been encouraging. Zibanejad remains Ottawa’s best possession forward, and has clicked well with Cory Conacher and Milan Michalek (neither of whom have seemed to click well with anyone this season), and the Turris-MacArthur-Ryan line has been Ottawa’s best all season long. Zack Smith is an effective 3rd line center with great faceoff skills. I don’t know where you slot Jason Spezza in when he returns from injury.
The Bobby Ryan Conundrum
From the day Bobby Ryan was brought in from Anaheim, there were visions of Spezza and Ryan recreating 2006 / 2007 levels of offense. The approaching Armageddon of negotiating a contract for both your top center and winger was still two years off. In the meantime we were told to sit back and watch the fireworks.
That Ryan hasn’t really meshed with Spezza (not that they’ve played very much together) could be a blessing in disguise. As Bobby Ryan produces on a line with high value / low cost players like Turris and MacArthur, the emphasis might shift from having to absolutely re-sign both players to simply ensuring that Ryan stays in the fold. (Along with Methot, MacArthur, and possibly Anderson.) Ryan has demonstrated an underrated playmaker’s ability to go along with his scoring and possession. Suddenly, Spezza and Ryan no longer come as a unit.
What could you get?
This is always hard to predict, but if Ottawa gave up a young roster player, a good prospect, and a 1st round pick for Bobby Ryan, and if you consider Spezza to be a player on the same level as Ryan—albeit a different kind of player, older, and at a higher cap hit—then you might expect that Ottawa could get a good roster player and a good prospect for Spezza, or perhaps a very good roster player in a one-for-one swap.
So, would you do it?
At the end of the day…I don’t know. Spezza isn’t just a good player; he’s an elite talent, and extremely difficult to replace. You don’t find a player who’s top ten in his category without drafting him in the top five and developing him for years, as Ottawa has done here. I certainly wouldn’t make the trade except for a similarly skilled player with a different set of tools.
What do you think?