I sat down to write more on the rapidly declining 2018 season. As I did it I realized this was quickly turning into something larger than just one post. Given the nature of the site as constructed I felt like cramming 2000 or so words into one post was absurd. I have no idea how long this series will be.
Jason Spezza might be the best value acquisition of the Jim Nill era. Tyler Seguin is the best acquisition. Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns and Mattias Janmark were more or less free. Alexander Radulov only cost money. Spezza was picked up from the Ottawa Senators after 12 calendar years of living in the Canadian capital for “guys”. The value was off the charts.
Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, Nick Paul, and a 2nd round pick became “property” of the cheapest franchise in hockey in return for their star and leader. You make that trade eleven times out of ten and use it constantly as a shining example of why you make these moves to improve your club when you can. More often than not, the team acquiring the established producer wins out. In this case they came out way ahead.
Spezza was a stabilizing force on the second, and occasionally first, line. This year it just hasn’t worked. If you’re looking for reasons why this season has tanked faster than the Oilers shamelessly hoping to acquire then waste the prime years of another good prospect, the collapse of Spezza would be a good place to start.
I tweeted this image out earlier. It comes from the data tracked by Corey Sznajder for the 2018 season and visualized by CJ Turtoro, which is about 16 Stars games. The numbers in the bar graphs are league-wide percentiles, the darker the blue the better.
We’re looking at how much offense the player generates, how he enters the zone, and how he exits.
This has easily been the most trying season of Spezza’s career. It’s easy to chalk it up to age because it’s the most readily apparent reason for the decline in his numbers. You could also easily point to his 5.4% shooting percentage, which is miles below his career mark and half of his average rate in Dallas.
You could also point to his ice time (13 minutes per game) and the linemates he routinely plays with in those minutes as reasons for the decline in production. If you want you can even point out the awful time he has had working in the system Hitchcock has implemented.
I think the point is that there are a million reasons you can point to for why Spezza has seen a drop in production that have nothing to do with age. If the Stars move on from him after this season some smart team is going to pick him up for a song and laugh their way to the bank with Spezza anchoring their second line on the way to a Stanley Cup.
What the data show is that Spezza is still really good at generating shots for himself and, particularly, his linemates when given the opportunity. That clause is key and the hinge that this entire problem swings on. How does one get an opportunity under Hitchcock?
I think this is a nuanced question that all too often is brushed off by people who have never been required to set expectations or lead people. As a leader you have to set expectations and hold everyone accountable to meet those expectations. You make the people under you know that you care about them individually and care about the success of the group as a whole so they buy in and help push them to meet those expectations.
There can be no question that Hitchcock understands this concept fully. He does. It’s the backbone of everything he does in hockey. He makes his players unequivocally know how he wants them to play and pushes them to meet those standards. When they do they get rewarded with his confidence and more responsibility.
The consistency of the message is key. When people know “if I do this, I know this will happen” it makes it really easy to buy in. We’ll get to him later, but there’s a reason why you’ve never heard Hitchcock say a negative word about Tyler Pitlick and why he keeps gobbling up responsibility. Ditto Martin Hanzal. They do exactly what Hitchcock wants them to do.
What you didn’t notice me mention was flexibility or adaptability. Nowhere in there is any hint of adjusting to the situation at hand to make the most of what is in front of you. Prior to the season Fox Sports Southwest aired a special called Hitchcock Full Circle (hosted by Julie Dobbs). I wrote about it, but I’m not sure it ever got published. Who knows what happened. I want to highlight this piece of info from the special:
If you’re grading the job performance of Ken Hitchcock this excerpt alone should be the basis of the rubric used, and the role of Jason Spezza is the key situation that should be focused on.
Spezza is a leader of the team. Hitchcock needed to get him to buy in and to successfully play the game he wanted him to play. For most of the season Hitchcock failed at this task. Spezza seemed to be a mess, but he was always one of those guys you would be able to point to for the depth players to get them to fall in line, if successful.
(At this point you may be asking yourself if what Hitchcock is expecting from his players is reasonable, or if it leads to winning hockey in the modern NHL. Hitchcock certainly believes it does, and maybe it does under some circumstances. We’ll get to that eventually.)
He was still an offensive threat, but he needs triggermen with him. Someone has to put the puck in the net off of his quality passes. The Stars lack of depth on the wings limits those opportunities.
Hitchcock demands that his centers play deep in the zone defensively to maintain structure, which inevitably means they will be involved in transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone often. As you can see on the previous chart, Spezza has been terribly unsuccessful doing that which makes moving him to a wing seem somewhat reasonable.
Spezza needs the puck put on his stick in the offensive zone and people to get the puck to. If you make these things happen you have an exceptionally useful player. What Hitchcock has asked him to do hasn’t worked. Once this became an obvious failure Hitchcock had two options. He could either value the skills Spezza brings and make it work, or shit all over him.
Guess which route he took? It’s so strong you can smell it all over the Metroplex.
If Spezza were a marginal player then not yielding at all would be more defensible. Crushing the offensive game of Spezza while the rest of the team has been unable to score since fucking 2017 is inexcusable and it’s very On Brand for Hitchcock. This is exactly what people warned about when he came back. He said the right things, but he hasn’t followed through on them. That inability to be flexible is another key reason why this franchise is staring squarely at the possibility of missing the playoffs once again and continuing a decade of almost utter futility.
I can’t imagine why Spezza wouldn’t be pushing hard to get moved to get as far away from here as possible. Someone like the Penguins or Maple Leafs is going to pick him up for nothing after an offseason of a certain portion of this fanbase rooting for him to be shipped out. He’s going to make the Stars look foolish in another uniform while they scramble to find a player who can bring what Spezza is capable of bringing.