Many NHL players circle back to the team that drafted them late in their careers. This could be the case if they retire and go back in a coaching or front office role, or provide a veteran presence on the ice for the next wave of players. Jason Spezza could be the latest to go full circle in his career by returning home to the Ottawa Senators.
The Senators drafted Spezza second overall back in 2001 and he went on to become one of the best forwards the city has ever had. He spent 11 seasons with the Senators, collecting 251 goals and 436 assists for 687 points. He collected another 52 postseason points in 56 games.
Related: 3 Best Trades in Senators History
Spezza took over the captaincy of the team two months after Daniel Alfredsson left, but it didn’t last long. The center was traded to the Dallas Stars after one year as the team captain, in part due to some issues with coaches and general managers and possibly a trade request, although that may not have been the case.
With his contract up with the Stars, Spezza is about to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. With the Senators entering the second year of their rebuild, it’s time for their draft pick to come home.
Why Spezza Would Help the Senators
Spezza has played 1,065 games in his 16-year career. He’s also added another 80 playoff games. As mentioned, he was the number two pick in 2001 and was the captain of the Senators. He knows the pressure that some of the skilled, young Senators will face, he knows exactly what to expect, in good times and bad, from the city of Ottawa and he knows how to be a leader.
Senators general manager Pierre Dorion touched on the team’s leadership core after trading away Mark Stone at the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline. He pointed to Cody Ceci, Mark Borowiecki, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Zack Smith and Bobby Ryan as the players to lean on as leaders. It’s not exactly an inspiring bunch for the young talent who will take over this team in the near future. Spezza can help with that.
Spezza was the highest draft pick of any of these players (tied with Ryan, who was second-overall in 2005), and has more games and points than any of them. He brings a wealth of knowledge and first-hand experience of what it takes to get into the playoffs and even to the Stanley Cup Final, helping the Senators there in 2007.
Players like Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Colin White will one day be the leaders on this team, but they shouldn’t have to bear that burden just yet. They, along with prospects like Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton and Erik Brannstrom, will need a veteran presence on and off the ice if they are to one day form the core of this team. Spezza can help show them the ropes and get them comfortable in the game.
He wouldn’t be a top-six forward, likely not even a top-nine forward unless they switched him to the wing (which he did do with the Stars on occasion). With the Stars, he mainly played fourth-line minutes and that’s what he could do for the Senators. They wouldn’t be asking him to put up 92 points as he did it 2007-08, merely help the young guys to get there.
Finally, it’s no secret that the Senators have a salary cap issue, in that they don’t spend enough. Currently, for the 2019-20 season, the Senators have a projected cap hit of $45.1 million (that’s without the salary cap going up, which it likely will). That gives them $34.4 million of cap space and roughly $16 million just to reach the cap floor (not a confirmed number as of yet, but based on this past season). Entry-level contracts can only fill so much space, so Spezza could help the Senators get to the lower limit of the cap.
Would Spezza Come Back?
It’s no secret that Spezza didn’t exactly leave Ottawa in the best terms. During the 2014 Playoffs, then-general manager Brian Murray announced that the Mississauga, Ontario native had requested a trade. The request came after Murray and then-head-coach Paul MacLean criticized the center’s game, saying there was “room for improvement” and that he had a difficult time handling the captaincy. (From: “Spezza asked for trade, Murray says” – Ottawa Citizen – June 12, 2014).
Whether or not he actually asked for the trade is unknown and even up for debate though. Either way, Spezza was dealt to the Stars and has been there ever since. However, with his contract up, it looks like his time in Dallas is also up.
“I think Jason knows where he’s at in his career, we had a good discussion,’’ Stars general manager Jim Nill told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun. “He asked for my opinion and I said, `Jason, you still have that fire in your belly.’ He agreed. He’s healthy. He can still fulfill a role. He was good for us in the playoffs. He was disappointed in his production in the regular season but he can still fulfill a certain role. He’s still one of the top draw men in the league. He’s still very good on the power play. Again, he was good for us in the playoffs.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got some younger players coming in, and the salary cap, it was just kind of time. But Jason is still a serviceable player that’s had a great career.’’ (From: “LeBrun: Jason Spezza contemplates his future — on and off the ice — as his time in Dallas comes to an end” – The Athletic – May 16, 2019).
LeBrun also writes that Spezza is open to the chance of a reunion with the Senators, if the opportunity presented itself.
“It’s still early in this process but I have a good relationship with the people in Ottawa that are still there,” Spezza said. “It would be high on my list of considerations that’s for sure. I left there on good terms. It definitely keeps the door open. It’s food for thought, for sure. But it’s so early in the process, we’ll see.”
In the interview, Nill also mentions one day seeing Spezza in a front office role, something that Spezza sees in his future.
“Hockey is the only thing I know well. I definitely have aspirations to stay in the game. I just love the game, I love the relationships, I love helping guys and teaching young guys. I would take a lot of pride in staying in the game for sure.’’
If the Senators could bring Spezza back, there may be an opportunity for him to transition from the ice to the front office, where the Senators desperately need to grow. With this in mind, Spezza could end up being a piece of the rebuilding Senators, even after he retires.
Senators Should Sign Spezza – For the Right Deal
A Senators-Spezza reunion could be a perfect scenario for both parties. The Senators need leadership and to spend some money without too much term, and Spezza just wants to keep playing. He still doesn’t have a Stanley Cup, so he might end up leaning towards a contender if one comes calling, but given his decline in play that seems unlikely.
Spezza is coming off back-to-back eight-goal seasons with 26 and 27 points, the lowest totals of his career (in seasons with over 35 games played). He might not be that attractive to a team gunning for the Cup.
But for the Senators, if they can get him to a one or two-year deal worth somewhere around $2 million, that would provide solid value for the club. If he performs well, he could even be a trade chip ahead of the trade deadline to bring more pieces to the team. Although, Senators fans dealing with two Spezza trades is a lot to ask.
While nothing is certain at this point, it does seems like a win-win-win for the Senators, Spezza and fans who have watch star after star leave Ottawa. It would be great for them to get one back, even at the end of his career. Those fans should get ready dust off their Spezza jerseys, just in case.
Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.