The debate started off about the media's readiness to foist players off on Tampa Bay.
Now hang with me here, because Jason Spezza is a very, very good scoring forward. Like really really good, no doubt. He's 13th (minimum 1000 minutes) in 5v5 points/60 minutes since the 2011 season at 2.37 and he's almost as good on the man advantage with 5.42 points/60 minutes, good for 15th in the NHL (minimum 200 minutes) over that span.
He has four 80-point seasons on his resume, two over 90 points, and he's a career point-per-game player -- which is rarer than you might think.
And yet, you're getting the sense that there's a "but" coming, right?
This is the first red flag raised with Spezza. He just turned 31, and while he's got a very good track record of scoring at a high level, his points per game trended downwards for the first time in his career, down to 66 points in 75 games (0.88), which is still very good but perhaps the start of a more troubling downward trend.
...recent research done into player aging contends that the "prime age" (at least in terms of scoring) is actually younger than we have assumed -- somewhere in the mid-to-late twenties. After that, nearly every player in the NHL goes into a demonstrable scoring decline until they eventually retire. There are, of course, always outliers (Martin St. Louis comes to mind as a player who has defined every aging curve imaginable) but those are exceptions to general trends. Besides, can we really bet on the small percent chance that Ryan Callahan will be as physically fit and mentally determined as Martin St. Louis has been well into his 30s?
Not-so-recent research as far back as 2010 showed that the "peak" years for most NHL forwards was somewhere in the mid 20s.
In addition, we now have an estimate of how even strength scoring ability changes through a player's 30's. On average, players retain about 90% of their scoring through age 29, but the drop from there is pretty sharp -- they hit 80% at age 31, 70% at age 32-33, and 60% at age 35.
So, while Spezza has been an elite scorer in his career, it's not crazy to assume his best year(s) are most likely behind him, and that a significant drop in scoring could already be happening.
Valtteri Filppula is also near the age when scoring starts to severely decline, and there are some concerns he'll continue to be a top-scorer for the Bolts by the end of his 5-year contract. Unlike Spezza, however, he's a useful defensive forward, penalty killer, and can slide down the lineup as a wing, offering versatility and non-scoring value to the Bolts that Spezza simply does not.
Tyler Johnson, on the other hand, is 23 and has a decent chance to improve on his scoring total from his rookie season moving forward.
The second big red flag is Spezza's contract. It's perfect for a cash-strapped team like Ottawa -- counting for $7 million against the cap while only costing Eugene Melnyk $4 million in actual salary in 2014-15, the final year of the deal.
But wait a minute -- there's only one year on the deal left?
Jason Spezza will be a UFA at the end of this season, which means any negotiations to acquire him get the added hindrance of figuring out how to balance the assets so that if he is or isn't extended the price paid remains fair (think about the conditions of the Ryan Callahan trade, for example).
Conversely, Tyler Johnson was just signed to a new 3-year, 10 million dollar contract, and there's a very good chance he'll have some very good years in his age 24, 25, and 26 seasons while costing only $3.33 against the cap. Filppula, meanwhile, carries the contract of a UFA, but still costs $2 million less against the cap than Spezza and is signed with some term remaining, too.
Jason Spezza's time in the NHL is littered with time missed due to injury. Maybe he's just unlucky, but it's hard not to look at his record and get worried about acquiring him. Two games here, four games there for a lower-body injury. 50 games in 2013 for his back. 15 games in 2011 for his right shoulder. 20 games in 2010 for his MCL. 14 games for his knee in 2007. The back issues linger and raise questions about how much longer he can be a top-level NHLer.
Filppula missed 26 games due to a broken wrist in 2009 but hasn't had any other extended absences, nor does he have an existing issue that might crop up at any moment, and Tyler Johnson has a clean sheet in terms of injuries, playing the full 82 in his first NHL season in spite of his size.
Sure, aging, injuries, contract -- there are peripheral things. What about on the ice? Why wouldn't Spezza help the Lightning more than Filppula and Johnson?
The clearest reason is usage. Jason Spezza is an offensive zone specialist. His zone start% over the past three years: 59.5%, 61.5%, and 55.0%.
To further display that, here's a usage chart for 2013-14, the only year all three players played in the NHL:
So, similar competition, similar possession results (slightly positive, though Johnson and Filppula were positive relative to their teams while Spezza was a drag on possession), but the two Lightning centers are doing it with a lot less favorable territorial usage. Spezza has been, and continues to be, a terrific offensive talent who cannot be played in any role except for 'sheltered/offensive'.
While Steven Stamkos continues to work on his all-around game, the truth is the Lightning don't really have a need for another offense-first (only?) centerman that needs to be sheltered like that to be effective. Johnson and Filppula are both capable of taking tougher assignments and providing a possession advantage, something that Spezza simply cannot do.
What it ultimately boils down to is need: Tampa Bay needs players like Johnson and Filppula to play defensive minutes and tilt the ice in the Bolts' favor. Not another expensive scorer.
The counterpoint to this will of course be that All-Star teams composed entirely of scoring players can and do work, such as the 2014 Canadian Olympic team which featured all skill players and no 'role players'. But the reason that worked is because they had high skill players (like Jonathan Toews up front, or Drew Doughty on the back end) capable of handling very tough assignments and still coming out ahead.
The thought of Spezza filling a scoring void left by St. Louis is kind of dumb too:
There's no evidence to date that that's the case. The Lightning scored. 2.79 G/gm with MSL & 2.95 G/gm after the trade.— Clare Austin (@Puckologist) June 19, 2014
There's also this notion out there -- again, from Kypreos -- that Yzerman might see some of himself in Spezza, a one-dimensional offense-only player that can be reshaped into a late-career two-way threat capable of leading teams to championships. But ask yourself -- do you really think Spezza is Yzerman? Really though?
I think Clare Austin summed this all up rather nicely:
And again the point is not "Spezza's not worth having." It's "don't spend the rent money on a hot tub."— Clare Austin (@Puckologist) June 19, 2014
Tampa Bay has some glaring weaknesses and open spots on the roster -- including only four defenseman currently signed to NHL deals (that have functioning knees -- sorry Mattias Ohlund). If there's a place to spend assets this summer, it's not on a second line scoring center. It's on the blue line. And acquiring Spezza and his $7 million cap hit would preclude the Bolts from getting the players they actually need this off season.
To sum it all up then, nice and neat so no one is unclear about what my points are here:
- Jason Spezza is an elite scorer but he is unlikely to stay that moving forward.
- His contract carries an unfavorable cap hit, will expire soon, and is worse when compared to the production provided by Filppula and Johnson for a cheaper price.
- Lingering injury concerns mean it's unclear how often he'll even be able to contribute should he be acquired. Filppula and Johnson have been more durable in their NHL careers.
- Jason Spezza is an offensive zone specialist who does not drive possession and needs to be sheltered by his coach.
- Acquiring Jason Spezza might prevent Tampa Bay from making a move for a defenseman (or two!) something they really need to do.