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Despite early goal drought, 'no doubt' Spezza's drive to score remains

Slogging through 15 goal-less games to open the season, the 34-year-old relied on his past to see him through

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

This is not the first time Jason Spezza has been asked about a goal-scoring drought or, to be more specific, it wasn't the first time he'd been asked about this specific goal-scoring drought.

Over the course of an exemplary National Hockey League career that has now reached 928 regular season games, the big forward has endured more than his fair share of goal-less stretches. That's just the way it's gone for Spezza, owner of 317 goals and 868 points.

When he goes, he goes. When he doesn't, well -- that's how you find yourself going 15 straight games out of the gate of the current NHL season without a single goal.

Even when the drought ended, as all previous droughts have ended, on Friday night with a wicked wrist shot on a Dallas power play, there is equal parts relief and understanding that one goal must mark a beginning as much as it marks an end.

And while Spezza does not bristle at being asked about these periodic dry spells, let's also make clear there is no comfort in having gone through this before.

"I'm not sure if comfort's the right word. It just means I'm familiar with the scenario from before," Spezza said in an interview a day before he managed to break through with his first goal of the season.

In fact, after Friday's goal -- part of a 5-0 whitewashing of the New York Islanders -- we joked that maybe he needs to talk to us more often. Reporters will say just about anything, but players, and perhaps goal-scorers in particular, are finely tuned to the nuances of their craft.

Not that Spezza is particularly superstitious. Even when things are going well, he won't ride the same stick for games on end. In fact, he might be more the opposite, a player that is constantly examining and reexamining his game, whether they represent good days or bad days. Okay, maybe a little bit more on bad days.

"I'm a tinkerer. I'm a tinkerer even when things are going well," Spezza said. "Right now, I'm definitely in tinker mode."

Video: NYI@DAL: Spezza wrists in PPG for his first of season

This was the longest Spezza had gone at the start of a season without a goal, easily eclipsing the 10 games he went without a goal to start the 2009-10 season. And he came dangerously close to a career-worst drought of 17 games that ran from Feb. 16, 2004 to March 18. But even in that year, Spezza managed to not just play through the lack of goals -- and the commensurate questions about why the former No. 2 overall draft pick from 2001 wasn't scoring, to be productive. 

Two days after Game 17 without a goal, he scored against Carolina and finished the season, his first full season with Ottawa, with 22 goals and 55 points. Right now, that'd look pretty good to Spezza.

Let's be honest, there's a lot at play here for the 34-year-old -- a lot of moving parts to this unproductive start that make it more worrisome, or at the very least, more noticeable.

Heading into Friday night's game, Spezza was averaging 13:07 a night in ice time, 1:47 on average on the power play -- almost exclusively on the team's second power-play unit. Two seasons ago, when Spezza was a key contributor to a high-octane Dallas offense that powered the team to a Central Division title, he was playing 16:31 a night, and almost twice as much on the power play at 3:07 a night.

"My role is different now, so I don't expect to all of a sudden get hot and just go back to how it was two years ago," Spezza said. "But I do think that my offensive game is still there. I still feel good with myself as a player. I think that I've done some good things and controlled the play at times. You just have to remember what you are as a player, to not lose track of what you are and what you do well while you're also trying to improve in other areas."

It's clear Spezza would like to play more, and if he produces more, he almost certainly will see more ice time. But -- and we told you this was complicated -- to get more ice time, he has to make sure he's taking care of certain defensive parts of his game to grow the trust with head coach Ken Hitchcock and his staff. And that means he's got to make every shift count in order to earn more ice time.

"I'm a cerebral player, so you try to draw back on good memories and good feelings and good habits," Spezza explained. "There's some habits in my game I'm trying to break to keep Hitch happy and get on the ice a little more. That's been my focus probably more than my offensive game, to be honest. I'm really trying to do some things so I can get involved in the team aspect of the game and play 5-on-5 lots. So I'd say I've probably spent more time focusing on my defensive game this year than I have my offensive game, so now that my offensive game's slacking, I probably need to put a little bit of time into it, you know, work on the touch a little bit."

The game waits for no man. And it especially doesn't wait for the big men who are used to controlling the game with their vision, their hands, and their physical presence.

It didn't wait for Vincent Lecavalier at the end in Philadelphia and in Los Angeles.

The game seemed to pass by Hall-of-Famer Eric Lindros at the end.

Dave Andreychuk, inducted Monday as part of the 2017 Hall of Fame class, had to completely remake his game to remain relevant as he closed out his career as a defensive specialist in Tampa Bay.

No shame in any of that.

And in this age of social media, and certainly in this salary cap age, there is often a rush to judgment with older, more expensive players like Spezza, who has this year and next on his current contract with Dallas at a $7.5 million cap hit.

Former Dallas Assistant GM Frank Provenzano, now an entrepreneur and frequent hockey analyst, admitted there are some issues with having a key offensive player whose salary represents roughly 10 percent of the team's cap, who isn't producing in the area in which he has traditionally contributed, and for which he is primarily paid to contribute.

Spezza, for instance, has played very well defensively. But he's not a guy who kills penalties, so it does put more pressure on him to produce on the offensive side of the puck.

Provenzano noted that it's still relatively early in the season, and that as the season moves along, it's likely the speed of the game will slow at least incrementally, which will be good for a savvy veteran like Spezza.

"That's why you've got to be careful with a small sample size," Provenzano said. "I wouldn't bury Jason Spezza yet. But there are sort of blinking pink lights here."

As for Hitchcock, he has uttered nary a discouraging word as he's tinkered with his lineup in the hopes of coaxing more offense from the group as a whole. He's moved Spezza to the right side, away from his traditional center position, using him with big center Martin Hanzal, and there have been signs of life, even as it looks as though Spezza will shift again to the left wide with Hanzal and Tyler Pitlick playing on the right.

"He's a streaky player," Hitchcock said recently of Spezza. "It'll happen at some period of time. But we don't want to have a guy start cheating just to get a goal because even if you get a goal and you're a minus player you're not helping us win."

"The foundation of his game's been good," the coach added.

Spezza understands all these things and admits that not being able to produce has followed him home this season. As it always has. To set the game aside has never been his way.

He has known players that could shut off the mind as they walked out of the rink. Doesn't mean they didn't care, but it's just been different for Spezza.

"There's some guys who do a great job of it," he said. "I've always admired that. My wife probably admires those people, too."

But here's the thing: If the game is unforgiving, especially when it comes to older players, we also know this -- sometimes, the games gives players a reprieve.

Like Dustin Brown, whose career in Los Angeles looked two years ago to be in perpetual decline. But he's reemerged as an important cog in a Kings team that might be the best in the Western Conference.

Or Eric Staal, who looked like things might be coming to an end as he went from being captain in Carolina to a kind of spare part with the New York Rangers in a one-and-done playoff season in 2016. But last season, Staal was an offensive catalyst in Minnesota and is off to a good start again this season.

Why not Jason Spezza?

"There's no doubt I want to score goals and I want to be a part of the offense. It's been my role my whole life," Spezza said. "And I do think about it. And I do want to contribute and I take the game very seriously."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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