Spezza Feeling at Home on the (Stars) Range

Jason Spezza corralled the puck along the right wing boards during a power play. Glancing left and using his peripheral vision, he spotted Dallas teammate Tyler Seguin slicing through the slot, then launched a crisp, accurate backhanded pass. Seguin latched onto the disc before skating in on Washington goalie Justin Peters and beating him to the near corner for an early 1-0 lead at American Airlines Center in Dallas. Spezza also added a second period goal in Dallas’s 5-4 victory over the Caps on Jan. 17.

Make no mistake – the 31-year old former Ottawa Senators’ captain and whipping boy is in a better place that he was previously. Handling the playoff race pressure like the seasoned pro that he is, Spezza has fit like a glove with his new team in the Great Southwest.

Spezza entered the All Star break as the Stars’ third leading scorer behind snipers Seguin (52 points) and team captain Jamie Benn (40 points) with eight goals and 34 points, including at least one point in six of the team’s last seven games. His inspired play has helped Dallas win three of its last five games and close to within just four points of 8th place Calgary for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.

The first year Star, whose last name rhymes with the word “pizza”, was acquired by general manager Jim Nill for three players and a 2nd round draft pick last summer with the hope that he would spread the scoring wealth on an offense that relied on its top line of Benn, Seguin and the now injured Valeri Nichushkin for its scoring.

Utilizing his 6-foot-3, 220-lb. frame and long reach to win puck battles in the corners and thread the needle with laser passes through all three zones to his swift skating teammates, Spezza is beginning to hit his stride offensively while relishing his new role with his new team.

“I don’t have the same role here that I had in Ottawa, where I was playing 20 minutes every night,” said Spezza,  a marquee name in the Canadian capital where he tallied 687 points in 686 games.  “I think I’m slotted in a (better) spot here.

“It’s a different challenge for me and I’m still trying to find my game (while) being on a (relatively) new team,” he added. “But it’s exciting coming to a new club and really having a new (sense of) excitement, a new challenge, a new group to build with. It’s something that’s driving me now to really work on my game.”

A junior hockey standout, Spezza was taken by Ottawa with the 2nd pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He posted identical 34-goal campaigns in 2006-07 and 2007-08.

One year after replacing Daniel Alfredsson as the Ottawa captain for the 2013-14 campaign, Jason no longer wears a “C” or an “A” (alternate captain) on his green Stars’ sweater. Nevertheless, he is highly regarded as one of the Stars’ leaders.

“I have a big responsibility to be a good player every night (with the Stars) and be a leader,” said Spezza, who signed a four-year contract extension with Dallas in November for a reported annual average salary of $7.5 million. “I’m still trying to support (Stars captain) Jamie (Benn) as much as I can. As soon as I got here, they told me they didn’t bring me here to just be another player. They want me to lead, too.”

A talented skater whose numbers didn’t always reflect his shooting and playmaking skills, Spezza was often portrayed as a scapegoat in Ottawa. When things didn’t go the Sens’ way, he frequently bore the brunt of fans’ criticism and eventually requested a trade following the 2013-14 NHL campaign.

In Dallas, he has happily relinquished the limelight to higher profile players such as Benn, Seguin, goalie Kari Lehtonen and defenseman and assistant captain Trevor Daley. “We’re not looking at him to be any more than that,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’re still asking him for leadership in some key areas for us. There are a lot more (media representatives) in the Canadian markets, and the spotlight always shines brighter (there). Sometimes it becomes a little overbearing. I think for him it’s been a little bit refreshing.”

Spezza’s consistent play and numbers in Dallas have enabled him to outperform Ottawa forward Alex Chiasson (seven goals, 17 points), the NHL veteran for whom he was dealt. The two prospects that Nill also sent to the Senators are forwards Alex Guptill, who has four goals and eight points for the AHL’s Binghampton Senators, and Nicholas Paul, who is skating for his OHL club in North Bay, Ontario. (Dallas also received forward Ludwig Karlsson, who has five goals and 11 points for the Stars’ ECHL affiliate in Idaho).

“Coming (to Dallas) has been exciting,” said Spezza. “We’ve got a great group, and feel like we’re a team that’s still young and building and doing a lot of good things now. Personally, I’m still trying to find my way a little bit. It’s a big adjustment when (you’ve been in) the same spot (Ottawa) for so long. My comfort level is great — everything is more familiar. I feel like the system is automatic and m starting to find my niche on the team.”