By Al Willig
No, Jason Spezza is not back on the ice; I am talking about his back. That spiny thing that contains the spine (my wife is the biologist, I am an accountant). Jason’s version of the spiny thing has a herniated disc and no, I do not know exactly what that is but it is not a good thing.
Back problems for the Spezz Dispenser are nothing new. He has missed parts of two other seasons with back issues. This time, Jason will have in-season surgery, is out indefinitely and will miss a minimum of two months.
What does that mean for the Senators? To-date, it has meant little as far as results since the Sens have beaten Washington and Montreal without Spezza. I guess some naysayers might say he might have cost them those wins, but I am not among them. In the longer-run, this very much affects the way the Senators play. There is no replacement for one of the great creative minds in the NHL who has the skill to go along, toiling his trade in Binghamton.
Enter Mika Zibanejad, the Senators first round pick; 6th overall in the 2011 entry draft. He just happened to be in Ottawa because of the AHL all-star break (of which, he was not a part) when Spezza went down. He is not Jason Spezza. His skill set does not remotely resemble Jason Spezza’s but he has a promising skill set none-the-less. All he has done since being called up is get the first star against Washington (one assist) and a goal against Montreal; all while playing on the fourth line. To be fair, Coach Paul MacLean has been using the 4th line quite liberally; partly because of the compressed schedule but mostly because they have been very effective. Also to be fair, Mika’s goal came on the power play. Zibanejad (can we come up with a nickname that isn’t Zibby?) is a more straightforward, use your speed and strength guy, but he has a very good shot and the grit he displays is beyond your typical 19 year old NHLer.
On a grander scale, Spezza’s absence makes the Senators more of a north-south team. The creativity is now more likely to come from the back end from the likes of Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar. The forward units will be best served by getting people to the net with the puck following shortly thereafter. The player most affected is Kyle Turris who now moves to the top line with Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek. Turris is a nice player who is not without some creativity, but not on the scale of Jason Spezza. It remains to be seen if he can handle the added attention that will be heaped upon him by opposing teams, but he has an assist in each game and the additional muscle he added in the offseason should serve him well.
The second line is completely revamped with Peter Regin centering Guillaume Latendresse and Jakob Silfverberg. To say this line is a work in progress is very generous. Their struggles have been covered to some degree by the effectiveness of the 3rd and 4th lines. Colin Greening, Chris Neil and Zack Smith are as steady as anyone can ask and it has to be a comfort to MacLean that he can count on them to deliver a steady performance with the physical and defensive dimension while chipping in offensively.
The saving grace amongst all the changes has been the play of goalie Craig Anderson. I like my crow served with a sweet and spicy sauce, please. I have never been a fan of Anderson, but there is no debating what he has done for this team in the early part of the season. He leads the league in GAA and save percentage and is second in wins behind only Antti Niemi in San Jose.
His timely and impressive big saves have both kept the Senators in games and kept the opponents out of games. His only blemish is a shoot-out loss to the Penguins after which he said “I let the team down”, countering somewhat his “me first” reputation. It can be argued that he cost them a point, but the Senators do not have a chance at that extra point if not for Andy who made 33 saves through regulation and overtime.
As I complete this post, the Senators potential problems are on full display in their game against the Carolina Hurricanes. They are not able to out-skill a pretty decent Hurricanes team, but Anderson is keeping them in the game. Down 1-0 on a tipped goal by Eric Staal on which Andy had little chance, the Senators have not mustered much in the way of quality scoring chances but full marks for effort. They fall 1-0; Anderson stops 34.