Maybe because he’d seen how it played out with former teammate Dany Heatley, but Jason Spezza didn’t want his exit from the Ottawa Senators to follow the same agonizingly slow path. So in the end, he accepted a trade to a team, the Dallas Stars, that may not have been his first choice, but offers intriguing options to a player seeking a change of scenery and hoping to win a championship.
The Stars have done a nice job in the past two years of beefing up their core group under general manager Jim Nill. A year ago, Nill made a bold move to pick up Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins and Seguin rewarded him by finishing fourth in the NHL with 84 points in 80 games. On Wednesday, just before the window opened on the NHL’s free-agent window, Nill acquired Spezza, who was fourth in the NHL in scoring in 2012, along with Senators prospect Ludwig Karlsson in exchange for one roster player, two prospects and a second-round pick in 2015.
Heading to Ottawa are Alex Chiasson, who tied for fourth on the Stars in scoring last year with 35 points in 79 games, but was a team-worst minus-21; as well as Nicholas Paul, the 101st player chosen in the 2013 entry draft, and Alex Guptill, who went 77th overall in 2010. Paul played in the OHL last season for North Bay while Guptill was at the University of Michigan. Guptill was the CCHA rookie of the year in 2012 and is from Burlington, Ont.
Spezza fills a badly needed hole for more scoring on a Stars team that unexpectedly made the playoffs last season after a five-year absence.
With Seguin and Spezza, the Stars now have the depth down the middle to compete in the Western Conference, where the top teams are all big, strong and deep at centre.
The Spezza deal ends a soap opera in the nation’s capital that could have turned ugly. Following the Senators’ 11th-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, Spezza asked general manager Bryan Murray to explore trade options for him. Spezza, with one year left on a contract that carries a $7-million salary-cap hit but pays him only $4-million, vetoed a possible trade to the Nashville Predators at last week’s NHL entry draft, forcing Murray to start the wheeling and dealing from scratch.
Compounding the problem was the fact that the primary suitors for Spezza, the Stars and the St. Louis Blues, were also in hot pursuit of Paul Stastny, the premier free-agent centre about to go on the open market, complicating the discussions. The Anaheim Ducks had also bid for Spezza last week, but ultimately filled their need for a No. 2 centre to play behind Ryan Getzlaf by acquiring Ryan Kesler from the Vancouver Canucks.
So the dominoes are starting to shift, with virtually every team in the Western Conference now trying to follow a script established by the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who had a quartet of accomplished centres in their line-up: Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards. Los Angeles plays a four-line game, which has proved to be a successful playoff strategy where wear-and-tear and fatigue essentially undermined the Stanley Cup aspirations of a number of teams.
In his new home, Spezza should be a good fit. He will play for coach Lindy Ruff, who is familiar with his game from Ruff’s years of coaching the Buffalo Sabres, a long-time divisional rival.
The Stars then went out and signed Spezza’s Senators’ teammate Ales Hemsky, to a three-year deal for $4-million per season. Hemsky played 20 games for Ottawa last year after coming over from the Oilers at the trading deadline and managed 17 points. He will also play a top-six role on a Stars’ team that’s aggressively fast-tracking their rebuild.