Jason Spezza was drafted second overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2001. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)
By Ronnie Shuker
Do a little digging and you’ll uncover an interesting genealogy at center for the Ottawa Senators.
The Hockey News is putting together a special issue listing the top 100 players of all-time, broken down by the top 20 at each position. In it, a panel of experts also selected the greatest player at each position for all 30 franchises, which made for some tough decisions. None were more difficult than choosing between Alexei Yashin and Jason Spezza as the Senators’ all-time center, because after a close look at their respective seven seasons in Ottawa, one sure began to look a lot like the other.
Statistically they’re similar. Yashin had 218 goals and 491 points, while Spezza has 171 goals and 475 points. Spezza’s 1.02 points-per-game average is higher, but Yashin is close at 0.97. Yashin’s best two seasons in Ottawa were 94 points in ’98-99 and 88 in ’00-01; Spezza’s were 92 in ’07-08 and 90 in ’05-06. Of course, Yashin was the better goal-scorer with two 40-goal seasons to Spezza’s none, but Spezza is the superior passer, eclipsing Yashin’s best of 50 assists three times, including 71 in ’05-06. Nothing settled there.
In the playoffs, Yashin had just 15 points in 26 games, while Spezza is much better at 46 points in 46 games. But here you have to look past the stats. Perception is the playoff reality in Ottawa and it’s the same for both players. The knock on Yashin was always his sudden disappearance come spring. But Spezza has also garnered a post-season reputation of disappearing for long periods of time like the team’s namesakes on Parliament Hill. Granted the Senators made the Cup final with Spezza in ’07, but in the eyes of media and fans he was nowhere to be found against Anaheim. And this past spring, Spezza put up a solid seven points in six games against Pittsburgh in the first round, yet was heavily criticized in Ottawa for what was seen as another vanishing act by a franchise center. Different stats, same perceived player.
Even their pedigrees are the same. Yashin was drafted second overall by the Senators, as was Spezza. Each also plays center, shoots right and is listed at 6-foot-3 and roughly 215 pounds. Heck, Yashin even wore No. 19 when he was a Senator - the same number Spezza wears now.
Off ice, too, their Ottawa careers have taken similar trajectories. Spezza, pegged to be a franchise player when he was drafted, was the darling of Sens fans his first five seasons until his stats and stock began to drop, which led to calls to trade him this summer. Yashin was drafted to be the franchise’s original savior, but he went from being Jesus to Judas in Ottawa after his season-long holdout in ’99-00 forced management to trade him a year later, a move that came much to the delight of Sens fans.
“(Yashin’s) credibility with the community was zero,” said Marshall Johnston, Ottawa’s GM at the time. “There wasn’t even a remote discussion of signing him to a new contract, so then it became a matter of what could we get for him.
“We were very fortunate in that trade, very fortunate.”
If fortune favors the strong, then Johnston simply outmuscled Isles GM Mike Milbury in what turned out to be a lopsided deal. The Senators traded Yashin to the Islanders for Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt and the Islanders’ second overall pick in the ’01 draft.
Johnston completed the deal at 7:00 a.m. on draft day, June 23, 2001 and the Yashin era was over. But his lineage in Ottawa lingers in the similarities between him and his heir, who the Senators got to replace Yashin the same day they traded him away, using that pick to select, you guessed it, Jason Spezza.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.