4/13/19 – Scratching Spezza

The last two things I’ve written for the Dallas Morning News have centered around matchups with the Nashville Predators. The last one was this morning revolving around Esa Lindell. It got me thinking about Jason Spezza. Then Sean tweeted this out:

I genuinely like Jason Spezza. There is no dimension where Justin Dowling is a more accomplished NHL player, or where he has more offensive upside than Spezza. It’s important to consider how the Stars roll their lines these days. Once you do the logic behind scratching Spezza is easier to follow.

The Stars need to generate offense. It isn’t coming from the bottom lines. There is a need to get the top two lines into the offensive zone as much as possible. Seguin and Hintz take defensive zone draws, but in a perfect selling-out-for-offense world they’re starting in the offensive zone as much as possible. When the series shifts to Dallas I would expect them to get significantly more offensive zone starts than they did in game one (and likely game two) since the home team can dictate matchups to a greater extent.

So there are not going to be any offensive zone starts for Spezza if he isn’t on the top two lines, and with the emergence of Hintz there isn’t really a spot for him up there given his production and lack of defensive ability. If he’s playing on the bottom lines he’s going to be expected to start in the defensive zone more often. If you don’t let him on the ice for faceoffs (negating some of his value as a faceoff “ace”) you’re throwing him out on the fly when you know his skating isn’t great.

It’s…tricky. It’s the same logic that keeps Denis Gurianov out of the lineup. I don’t agree with it when it comes to Gurianov given his game breaking speed, but I have a hard time getting too worked up over Spezza at this point. In the top six they do have better options now, even if Spezza is better offensively than Dowling. Dowling is a pretty decent player though.

The fourth line barely played in game one, but when they were on the ice they were fine. They played straight up with the Calle Jarnkrok, Wayne Simmonds, and Brian Boyle line. Dowling had 52 points in 62 AHL games with a normal shooting percentage. He’s a fine depth player. If Spezza isn’t going to be a big part of the offense or on the powerplay it makes sense to have a more defensively responsible better skater on the bottom line.

It sucks for Spezza, but he’ll find a home next year with a team more able to fit him in. The speed game just isn’t going to work for him now, and the Stars are doing a hell of a lot more skating the past few months. It sucks for him, but getting worked up over it as a fan makes little sense.

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1/16/19 – Spezza Needs Finishers

After the Dallas Stars lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night Bob Sturm posted this question about Jason Spezza and Valeri Nichushkin:

I don’t really remember when this was. Maybe it was prior to this season? Some people thought (not necessarily Bob) that Nichushkin would return from Russia to magically score at a significantly higher rate than he ever did on either continent. Oddly enough that hasn’t been the case.

Komrade Val aside, Spezza has been fine I think. He isn’t the dominant Spezza of yesteryear, but he can still be a valuable player. The problem is that he needs players with him who can finish after he gets the puck in the zone.

The data collected by Corey Sznajder is invaluable. He gets everything from zone entries and exits to shot contributions. He has about ten percent of the season done so this isn’t complete data yet. However, the data he has does show Spezza to be a competent player.

Let’s start with shot contributions. These were visualized by a CJ Turturo Tableau. We’re looking at these on a per hour basis. The green bar is shots taken. Spezza is clearly behind most of the Stars forwards in shot generation, but he’s high on this list from Shot Assists, or shots his passes set up.

In 2017 Spezza was in the 90th percentile of shots per hour. Last year he dropped to the 55th percentile. This year he’s at the 22nd percentile. This tells me that Spezza, at this stage of his career, needs players on his wings who can finish to be productive. He’s still setting shots up, but he either isn’t or can’t get his shot off at a high level anymore.

His three most consistent linemates have been Devin Shore, Mattias Janmark, and Jamie Benn. Based on the image above Janmark should be the kind of shooter to do well with Spezza, but I wonder if he is being too selective.

Janmark’s heat map from Hockeyviz shows that when he is on the ice the Stars get in real close on the right side for attempts. Just about everywhere else is a disaster. If you’re being selective and the team can’t score then maybe throw a few more shots on net.

Another note with Janmark is that he has 6.33 Individual Expected Goals (ixG) at even strength. That’s good for 5th on the team out of the forwards, and basically tied with Alexander Radulov. Janmark is only shooting 4.5% though after shooting 14.5% through two seasons. He’s due for a little bit of puck luck eventually you’d think.

Benn also definitely seems like the kind of shooter who needs to be with a playmaker like Spezza, but if neither can drive the play anymore how do they get into scoring position? The roster has some poor fits at this stage due to not being really prepared for the natural aging curve.

Janmark enters the offensive zone with possession as well as any forward on the roster. Spezza and Shore are both also in the top five. Shoot the puck guys.

Benn sits at 8th on this list. I still wonder how much of that is Seguin and Radulov always having the puck, but regardless he’s low on the list. At this point he probably needs to stay with them to maximize his production. Janmark with Spezza is a good fit, but they have to get someone who can put some pucks in the net on the line.

Andrew Cogliano improved the roster, but he isn’t that guy. This line’s problem isn’t getting into the offensive zone. The problem is getting pucks on net and finishing. I don’t think Spezza is done. I think he may be done scoring many goals at even strength, but his time as a useful NHL player isn’t over.

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