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Spezza's value to Senators remains as vital as ever

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Jason Spezza's importance to the Senators goes far beyond the impressive statistics he has produced with the team this season. He has also eagerly shared his veteran's experience with younger teammates (Getty Images).

The gaudy offensive numbers have long been huge part of his story.

As Jason Spezza gets set to play his 600th career National Hockey League, those statistics say plenty about what he's brought to the Senators lineup. The 28-year-old centre has produced 607 points, including 221 goals and 386 assists, in eight-plus seasons with the team — only captain Daniel Alfredsson ranks ahead of Spezza in all three categories in modern franchise history.

With 75 points this season (29-46), the Toronto native sits in the top five in NHL scoring and will finish with his best totals since 2007-08, which Spezza racked up a career-best 92 points (34-58) as the centre of one of the league's most feared lines (along with Alfredsson and Dany Heatley).

All of that is easy enough to know. But those who are really in the know — his Senators teammates — will tell you emphatically that his value to the team goes way beyond the numbers. They'll point out that the 'A' on his jersey is clear evidence of the leadership role he holds with this team, along with Alfredsson, fellow alternate captain Chris Phillips and Chris Neil.

"Since I came here, he's been a top player and someone to rely on," defenceman Erik Karlsson said following the Senators' pre-game skate in advance of tonight's matchup with the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). "Both on and off the ice, he's a great guy and he's really taken responsibility for everything, and making sure everything is good with everyone."

Ottawa centre Zenon Konopka goes even further than that, saying Spezza deserves serious consideration for the Hart Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's most valuable player. Though he's only seen him from afar until this season, the first year Senator has quickly come to appreciate what Spezza brings to the mix.

"Jason Spezza, to me, doesn't get enough credit," said Konopka. "He takes the brunt of the blame when things go wrong ... (but) the guy is a fantastic player and, in my mind, should be in the conversation for the Hart Trophy. He's done everything for this team."

At the outset of the season, Spezza couldn't help grinning when it was suggested to him that, in terms of experience at least, he was now among the Senators' most senior citizens (on the current roster, only Alfredsson, Phillips and Neil have played more games in an Ottawa uniform). And he has eagerly embraced the leadership role that goes along with it, especially when it comes to mentoring to influx of new talent from the Binghamton Senators that now surrounds him.

"Time flies, I guess," Spezza said at the time. "I have a lot of great experience and I'm still a relatively young guy. I was fortunate to be able to play in the league when I was 19 and I like to share that experience ... The biggest thing for a young player is seeing that you try to be a good example, you try to practise hard and you work on your game.

"Even when things are going good, I like to work on my game after practice and you hope that kind of stuff just rubs off. Usually, the best way to help guys out is just leading by example."

Count the 21-year-old Karlsson, who's struck up a strong off-ice friendship with Spezza, among those that have benefited from that experience.

"He's always been good to me and he's a smart guy who's been around for a long time," said Karlsson, who is just one goal shy of setting a new franchise record for goals in a season by a defenceman (20). "He's been in this league for a long time and that's good for this team. He's such a great guy and I think he's probably one of the most important guys on this team, for sure."

It is also why those same teammates are embracing their No. 1 centre in a time of need. Spezza's childhood friend, freestyle skier Nik Zoricic, was killed in an accident in Switzerland last weekend and he served as a pallbearer at Zoricic's funeral Monday in Toronto.

"He's gone through a lot," said Senators head coach Paul MacLean. "But everybody goes through a lot at times in their lives and, a lot of times, the comfortable place to be is with your teammates."

Added Konopka: "He's a big part of our family. Anything we can do to help him, we will."

Around the boards

The Senators (37-26-10) enter tonight's game three points behind the sixth-place Devils in the Eastern Conference standings. Both have nine games remaining, including the season finale April 7 in Newark, N.J., which might well be crucial in settling the final playoff picture. "We're just real glad we're in the race and that we have a seat in the race," said MacLean. "We just want to make sure we're prepared every day to do our jobs and we'll finish where we finish." ... After sitting out the last five games as a healthy scratch, Konopka returns to the lineup tonight in place of Bobby Butler. The native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is eager to see his first action in two weeks. "It's been a tough month, sitting on the sidelines," he said. "Especially when you drop a couple of games, it hurts. Hopefully, I can contribute tonight." ... Ben Bishop (3-1-2, 2.10 GAA) makes his seventh straight start in goal for the Senators, with Johan Hedberg between the pipes for the Devils. "He's played real well for us and he's given us a chance to win every time he's played," MacLean said of Bishop's play in the absence of injured starter Craig Anderson. "That's all you can ask." ... Forward Kaspars Daugavins and blueliner Matt Carkner are also out tonight.

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