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After difficult season, Jason Spezza feels Stars have 'sense of urgency'

The veteran center knows there's more left to accomplish, especially when he feels as good as he does right now

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

No one on the Dallas Stars roster understands the cruel truth of what it means to see a championship window, enticingly open, close with sudden finality the way that Jason Spezza understands it.

It's been more than a decade since Spezza and the Ottawa Senators sailed through the 2007 playoffs in juggernaut fashion, going 12-3 through Eastern Conference opponents en route to the team's first-ever Stanley Cup Final.

But the magic ran out against the Anaheim Ducks, who defeated the Senators in five games. Even now, Spezza, 34, thinks about how quickly conceit that the successes of today will continue tomorrow and the day after can be rocked.

"You definitely are naïve a little bit (when you're younger)," Spezza said in an interview prior to training camp. "I went conference finals, second round, finals, Presidents' Trophy. We had some good teams and you kind of assume that it's always going to be that way.

"So yeah, losing in the final still haunts me a little bit. I think about it at times," Spezza said.

The window closed on the Senators just as it did on the Los Angeles Kings and many believe it has closed on the Chicago Blackhawks. And for players on those teams, as was the case in Ottawa, it's a hard reality to confront.

"When you're a young guy you sit in the room and everybody says 'we've got to make the most of this you never know when you'll get a chance to get back. Now I'm the older guy saying, 'we've got to make the most of this," and Spezza starts to laugh out loud at the absurdity of how quickly time turns us on our ear, "because you never know when you're going to get back."

Which brings us back to the here and now and how Spezza's own experiences are very much relevant to what is unfolding in Dallas.

After a dreadful 2016-17 season that saw the Stars plummet 30 points in the standings and miss the playoffs, this summer has seen a dramatic change in the organization from the arrival -- or rather return -- of Ken Hitchcock as head coach, to the addition of key veterans Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal and, Spezza's former teammate in Ottawa, Marc Methot.

Video: Spezza meets with scholarship recipients

Two years ago, the Stars won the Central Division with 109 points and went to the second round losing in seven games to St Louis.

This team is better than that team -- or it should be. Maybe a lot better.

"I think there's a sense of urgency," said Spezza, set to begin his fourth year as a member of the Stars, having been traded to Dallas in the summer of 2014.

"I think we have a chance to be an elite team," he said. "I think the pain that we went through last year, missing the playoffs and really underachieving after winning the West, I think will fuel us and I think it will gives us a full buy-in this year."

Ah, Hitchcock.

One of the enduring storylines of the summer, vis-à-vis all of the changes afoot in Dallas has been what impact Hitchcock will have on his top players, and how he will handle a glut of centers.

Hitchcock has been unequivocal. Tyler Seguin and Hanzal will be the team's consistent centers and everyone else will have to adjust to playing some out of position. That includes Spezza.

"So a guy like Spezza, he's going to have a big role on our team," Hitchcock said.

It just may not be the role Spezza is used to.

"Every game, I'm looking for an advantage in the opposition," the veteran head coach said. "So he's going to play a different role than he's maybe played in the last little while. It's going to be good for us and I think really good for him."

When things fall apart -- and make no mistake, they fell apart in Dallas last season, a collapse that cost Lindy Ruff his job as head coach -- it's time for soul-searching on everyone's part.

Spezza took advantage of an unusually and uncomfortably long summer to push himself physically but also to ask himself what he could have done differently and how he can do more this season.

"For me, personally, it was a lot of reflection on okay, what went wrong? What do we have to do different? And I just worked this summer," Spezza said.

"For me, it was a very focused, because I don't plan on having a long summer like that for a while. So I think it did my body some good and gave me a chance to work on some things. But I also did a lot of reflecting on how I can help things along in the room. What I have to do with my role, how I can help Jamie (Benn, the team's captain), just kind of looking at the big picture type stuff too."

It's not surprising, then, that Spezza is open to whatever Hitchcock has in mind vis-à-vis where Spezza fits in the lineup.

"I played quite a bit of wing last year anyways," Spezza said. "I think I prefer to play center. I'm a natural centerman but I think I'm a pretty smart player so I can play kind of all over the place and I don't mind playing all over the place. Sometimes by playing all over the place you get to play up in the lineup a little more and play a little more."

"I think too, much gets made of, 'Oh, you're going to put me on the wing.' It's important but we can figure it out,"Spezza added. "It's not that big a deal. I'm not the first guy ever to be moved around the lineup a little bit."

"The good thing with Hitch is I feel he's got a plan and when somebody outlines a plan to you, it's really easy to follow," he said. "A lot of times, we're just looking for direction. If somebody lays out the plan then there's no guesswork. For me, open communication's the best way. If he thinks I'm playing bad I want to know. If he wants something different out of me, we're going to talk about it. I think that's the benefit of having a guy like Hitch is he's a task master and he's going to be on you. For me, I've always responded well to coaches like that."

There has always an easiness about Spezza. Thoughtful without being overtly serious, unafraid to be self-aware. It was so even when we first sat down for one of these chats, when Spezza was a teen sensation playing for the Windsor Spitfires. It was during the 2000-01 season and Spezza was being touted as a possible No. 1-overall draft pick.

He ended up being selected second behind Ilya Kovalchuk, who went to Atlanta. When the New York Islanders famously (infamously?) traded the second pick to Ottawa, in a package that included Zdeno Chara for Alexei Yashin,Spezza became a cornerstone piece of a very good Ottawa team.

How would life had been different if Spezza had been an Islander? Or if he'd gone to Atlanta?

Spezza figures he might have had more individual success early on but probably ended up learning more going to an established team in Ottawa.

"My first couple of years were I really had to work my way through the lineup and kind of learn the hard way and didn't play very much," Spezza recalled. "Whereas I feel like now the young guys kind of come in and out of their primes quicker so they're given the keys a little earlier. Everything peaks kind of a little bit sooner than it used to.

In an age when so many of the game's difference makers are impossibly young, Spezza has a unique understanding of what Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and others are going through.

"I think I'm able to relate to a lot of these young up and coming kind of guys because I kind of had the same pressures and the same expectations the same success at that age," Spezza said. "I think the league's a little different now. You're given the keys to the car a little earlier."

Doesn't seem that long ago we were sitting in a Windsor Arena that was to be demolished to make way for a new high school. Assuming he stays healthy, Spezza will finish this season on the cusp of 1,000 NHL games. While his point totals slipped last season (he had 50 points, 13 fewer than the year before when he scored 33 times, one shy of his career best) by the time his contract runs out at the end of next season, Spezza should be very close to 1,000 points.

With Shane Doan retiring, and uncertainty surrounding Jaromir Jagr, Marian Hossa and Jarome Iginla, Spezza will likely start the season eighth among active players in point production.

But before we get too far down the retirement road, Spezza makes it abundantly clear he's thinking much more about what is left to accomplish before the final curtain call -- especially when he feels as good as he does right now.

Video: DAL@TBL: Spezza rips a wicked wrister past Budaj

He looks at the wooden table between us at the coffee shop near the team's practice facility.

"My back's - knock on wood - that's the most important part for me and that's been really good," Spezza said. "I haven't had any real issues since I got here."

For a time, back issues threatened to derail Spezza's career. Now, he's looking at this year and next - when his contract ends with the Stars - as a kind of proving ground.

"I don't golf. I love to play golf, I haven't golfed for five years since my last surgery," Spezza said.

"I love to play tennis. I don't play tennis very often. I just basically play hockey and work out. That was kind of the advice I got from the surgeon. It's like a pitcher on a pitch count; do you want to use your pitches on a golf swing or do you want to play hockey? My backs' probably better than it was in my late 20s. But I also pay a lot more attention and I'm smarter now."

The father of four girls under the age of 7 1/2 has embraced Dallas and would like to stay here. But he's a realist. He knows the best way for that to happen is to pile up some wins and win some playoff rounds.

"I think too many guys as they get older they try to think about the end and then it gets there quicker," Spezza said. "The way I feel I think I've got some good years left in me."

"I think my contract being up in a couple of years I'd like to see us have a couple of successful years," he added. "I hope to finish out my career here. I really do. I really hope this is my last stop. It'll be that way if we have some success here the next couple of years. They'll want me to stay, I'll want to stay and we'll make it work. The only way that it won't happen is if we don't have success.

"The best way to take care of the future is just to win hockey games."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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