On biggest stage, Spezza finally being called on to lead the charge
OTTAWA -- Before there was Sidney Crosby, there was Jason Spezza.
And back in the day when the future was a blank expanse, this was the time people imagined for the fresh-faced boy from suburban Toronto with the goofy grin and the vast talent.
Stanley Cup finals, team's back against the wall, a moment for a star, a leader.
Here we are, all these years later, and Ottawa coach Bryan Murray imagines the same thing for his star center.
"He's a guy that I believe will be the big turnaround in the home ice. I think he'll win faceoffs and I think he'll play considerably better," Murray said after his team returned home shouldering the significant burden of a 2-0 series deficit in the Senators first Stanley Cup finals appearance.
"That's the biggest thing with Jason," Murray added. "When he's skating and moving, he moves the puck to the open man real well, and if it's not there, he's been putting the puck in, giving us a chance to at least get a forecheck at times and make a play down deep in the offensive zone. I didn't think that that line, not only him, was willing to do that consistently in the two games."
It was an interesting moment that foreshadows perhaps something even more interesting, maybe even momentous.
On a team that features stars like captain Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Wade Redden, none of whom have played particularly well in the first two games of the finals against Anaheim, Murray pointed instead to the 23-year-old Spezza.
Perhaps he was laying down the gauntlet for Spezza, whom he expects great things from.
Perhaps he was just hoping to catch a break in a series in which the Senators are desperate for a break.
Regardless, it is a mark of the evolution, the maturity of the one-time child prodigy that Spezza reacted to Murray's hopeful comments, not with surprise or nervousness, but with his newfound aplomb.
"I know personally I have to be good,"" Spezza said. "Hopefully I can give the team a jolt. I know I have to be an impact guy."
If it seems like Spezza has been around forever, even though he is still two weeks from his 24th birthday, it's because he has.
He recalls the first newspaper stories being written about his hockey talents when he was 14.
At 15, he played seven games with Canada's national team during an exhibition tour, stepping onto the ice with players more than twice his age.
He became only the third Canadian to represent his country at the World Junior Championships as a 16-year-old, joining Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros in that elite group (Sidney Crosby and Jay Bouwmeester are also both part of that group now).
For a long time, Spezza lived on a virtual hockey rainbow. The pot of gold, though, would take some perseverance to find.
By the time the 2001 draft rolled around, Spezza's stock had dipped slightly as the hockey media had to start finding some chinks in his armor.
After a couple of iffy performances at World Junior Championship tournaments and some negative press, the Atlanta Thrashers opted to take flashy Russian Ilya Kovalchuk with the first pick that summer, a pick that had seemed destined for Spezza for years.
When you have that much attention at an early age, "your game gets poked and prodded a lot more than other people," Spezza said in an interview this week.
The Ottawa Senators, in one of the most lopsided deals of this generation, acquired Zdeno Chara and the second overall pick in the 2001 draft for Alexei Yashin. The Senators used that pick to draft Spezza.
After his final year of junior, Spezza arrived at training camp in 2002 hoping to make an immediate impact with the Senators, but then-coach Jacques Martin didn't think Spezza was ready and dispatched him to the Sens' AHL team in Binghamton. The perception was Spezza didn't want to be there.
"That's wrong right off the bat," said John Paddock, who was the coach in Binghamton when Spezza arrived.
It's natural for the second overall pick in the draft to want to make an immediate impact in the NHL. Unfortunately, many young players who have been dominant at the junior level, both in terms of ice time and point production, accrue some bad habits along the way. Long shifts, conserving energy, working one-on-one as opposed to using teammates and lack of defensive responsibility are some of the poor tendencies like Spezza carry with them into the pros.
"But it didn't take him long to adjust," added Paddock, who is now an assistant coach in Ottawa. "I think he knew it was best for him."
Spezza thrived in the AHL, recording 54 points in 43 games, and then recorded 22 goals in his first NHL season.
It was during the NHL lockout season, 2004-05, that Spezza truly emerged as an elite player. Instead of playing in Europe as many NHLers did, Spezza called Paddock during the summer and said he wanted to come back to Binghamton. The style there would more closely parallel that of the NHL and the competition would be keen with other young stars in the mix. It proved a perfect tonic for a young man who yearned to get better.
He led the AHL in scoring with 117 points in 80 games and was the league's most valuable player. Last season, Spezza showed that performance was no fluke by registering 90 points in his second full NHL season and being named an alternate to Canada's Olympic team.
But if Spezza has learned to avoid the on-ice mistakes that limited his offensive production early in his career, he has learned something even more valuable this season: the concept of being a complete player.
The Senators got off to a rocky start this year, and when Spezza went down with an injury just before Christmas, many believed the team might actually miss the playoffs. But the Senators rallied around Murray's new emphasis on team defense and began to pile up victories. When Spezza was ready to return in late January, he said it was important that he be part of that. And he was. He finished with 87 points in 67 games and was a plus-19.
Murray began to use him in the final moments of periods and games, times reserved for the team's most trustworthy players.
Spezza said it's a chicken-egg issue. Getting the chance to play in those situations showed Murray's trust and increased Spezza's confidence, and with that confidence came the results that allowed Murray to increase Spezza's responsibility, and so on.
"I think I'm a little smarter about how I approach things," Spezza said. "I try to make smarter plays with the puck. I've always been pretty good about figuring out how to get better."
Perhaps because Spezza has been in the hockey limelight for so long, it seems as though it's taken a long time to get to the point at which it's not incongruous to use the term "star" and "Spezza" in the same breath.
"Actually, I think it's been pretty fast. I think he's fast-tracked himself," countered Paddock, who has often used players like Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano, who gave up offensive stats to become more complete players and leaders and champions, as a point of reference for Spezza.
"I think what it is growing up," added Paddock, whom Spezza often turns for advice if things go a bit sideways.
This spring, there has been more of the same. Spezza has 21 points and is tied for the playoff scoring lead with Heatley. He recorded six consecutive multi-point games on the road as the Senators roared through the first three rounds to their first Stanley Cup finals.
But, like the rest of his teammates, Spezza has struggled early in the finals. When asked about Spezza's performance after Game 1 Murray quipped, "Well, he used to play like he played last night, and then he became a real good two-way player and he's a very smart player, very creative player."
That such a comment might then be followed by Murray's challenge prior to Game 3 sets up an interesting dynamic.
After all this time, after all that's been said and written over the years, does Spezza feel this is his time?
"It's not really a moment that defines you, but more what you do steadily," Spezza said.
Then it's fair to suggest that Spezza has been steadily building to this moment.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com