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30 in 30: X-factor Spezza now leader of Senators

by Arpon Basu

For the entirety of Jason Spezza's career with the Ottawa Senators, he had someone to lean on.

It was Daniel Alfredsson's team, and there was no questioning that fact.

Now, with Alfredsson gone to the Detroit Red Wings, it would be hard to argue that the Senators are not Spezza's team.

It's a big change from an off-ice perspective, and one Spezza appears ready to embrace.

"He wants that to be the case, I know that from talking to Jason," Senators general manager Bryan Murray told "He has great respect among his teammates, in particular the young guys seem to congregate around him. He brings a lot to the table on our team."

Spezza in all likelihood will be named captain in Ottawa before the season starts. At 30 years old and with two years remaining on his contract, Spezza is a logical choice to get the nod over the other main candidate, defenseman Chris Phillips, who is 35 and entering the final year of his contract.

It may not always be easy for Spezza if he gets the "C" sewn on his sweater, considering the person he'll be replacing and the manner in which that person left the team made some fans angry. But Spezza has watched Alfredsson operate for years, and that surely will help.

"Any young player being around a guy like Alfredsson had to learn, and I think Jason had great respect for Alfie. So I think he blossomed to a degree," Murray said. "He's a real smart hockey guy. He understands the League and what goes on in the marketplace here. I think Jason brings a lot now. He's at that stage in his life where his performance level and his maturity level, he should benefit from being one of the leaders now and maybe stepping out from under that shadow."

On the ice, Spezza will be under scrutiny as well.

Making a quick recovery from back surgery in time to play Ottawa's final three games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season was impressive, but Spezza obviously was not nearly as effective as he normally is.

Now, with an entire offseason to recover properly, Spezza has been given perhaps his biggest weapon since Dany Heatley with the addition of high-scoring right wing Bobby Ryan in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks. Ryan has scored at least 30 goals in every full NHL season he has played, and that was in the shadows of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim.

In Ottawa, Ryan will be expected to score, a lot. That responsibility will be shared by Spezza as the playmaker on a top line that likely will include Milan Michalek opposite Ryan.

Spezza will need to show he can stay healthy for an entire season, something that has happened once in the past four.

But if he is able to stay on the ice, Spezza should be poised to star as he settles into a new leadership role on a team that undoubtedly is his, centering what may be one of the most potent lines in the NHL.

"Jason is, I don't know what number he fits in the League, but he's got to be one of the top creative centers in the League," Murray said. "There's no doubt about that."

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