Jason Spezza credits an off-season home improvement project with helping his goal-scoring touch for the Ottawa Senators.
"I put a net in my backyard this summer and shot a lot more pucks," Spezza said Wednesday, a day after his two goals helped the Senators to a win over Atlanta, their fourth straight victory and sixth in the past seven games.
Long considered a playmaking centre, Spezza is more apt to be shooting the puck these days. It's just one aspect of his game that he's working at in an attempt to improve as a better all-around player.
Often criticized for being one-dimensional during his first seven NHL seasons, the 27-year-old seems to have taken some of those knocks to heart and the Senators are reaping the benefits during their current hot streak.
"Right now, he's doing a lot of good things," coach Cory Clouston said following the team's practice in preparation for Thursday night's visit to Scotiabank Place by the Vancouver Canucks. "He's complementing his game from the offensive side with a good defensive mindset. He's still, I don't want to say a work in progress, but he's working hard to develop that part of his game. We use him on the penalty kill a little bit more right now, he's been very good on faceoffs and he's wanted to expand his role and he's getting the opportunity and making the most of it."
Spezza has endured some tough times in Ottawa, dating back to his early days when then-coach Jacques Martin sent him off to the minors, saying he was still a boy trying to play in a man's league.
Last year was particularly tough as he struggled to adapt to the departure of long-time winger Dany Heatley and was bothered by nagging back trouble. A knee injury forced him to miss 20 games and, with a contract that pays him a team-high US$8 million this season, he became the lightning rod for fans' frustrations during the team's first-round playoff elimination at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was persistently booed by the home crowd during that series.
That all led to him expressing his unhappiness with the treatment to general manager Bryan Murray, and when Murray made those discussions public, it fuelled speculation that Spezza could be on his way out over the summer.
However, he worked hard during the off-season and, after a groin injury kept him out of five games early on, he's begun to hit his stride on a line with Alex Kovalev and Peter Regin.
They've been the Senators' best unit so far and a big reason the team's been able to turn it around after a poor start to the season.
Clouston's pairing of Spezza and Kovalev - no stranger to criticism from fans and the media himself - had some wondering if there'd be enough pucks to keep both happy and enough defensive presence to keep it out of their own net, but the combination has clicked.
"We all play for the same thing - win the game and help the team," Kovalev said. "We're not fighting against each other for the point standings or anything like that.
"I know the way Jason's playing, the way his style is and how he plays the game. . . . At this point, we're doing the right things."
The sight of Spezza, whose high-risk, high-reward play often caused fans and coaches to throw their hands up in frustration, being used in defensive situations and as a penalty-killer raised a few eyebrows. But he's been effective on the penalty-kill and his plus/minus rating of plus-7 shows he's becoming more reliable with and without the puck.
"I've paid a little more attention to it," he said. "I've been put in to a situation where I'm playing more of a defensive role a lot of times during the game. A lot of it is getting the opportunity from the coach and trying to make the most of it and I've had some success with it so far.
"You just want to get the chance to play in all situations and contribute to wins and feel good when the team wins a game and you don't get on the scoreboard. It's something I've wanted in my career and I'm starting to get."
While improving his defensive play, Spezza's also showcased his shooting skills lately and, although he has just four goals in 10 games, looks more of an offensive threat than when he was trying to set Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson up during that trio's glory years.
He's always had a dangerous shot, but he's more likely to wield it these days and goalies like Atlanta's Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelec found that out Tuesday.
"For so long, I played with Alfie and Heater and was trying to get them the puck and my game's changed a little bit," he said. "I'm trying to be a little more of a shooter, so it's coming slowly.
"Starting last year when I got hurt and missed 20 games, I watched a lot from the press box. I came back and shot the puck a lot more pretty much from that point on until now and it's opening up a lot more seams. . . . Always the first play I kind of see is a pass and I'm trying to make a little more of an effort to shoot a little bit more and it's still a work in progress."