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Tough season behind him, Jason Spezza looks forward with 'fire in belly'

The veteran center is determined to rekindle the form that made him one of the league's best players

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Jason Spezza is ready to go.

The veteran center has been in Frisco for weeks and can't wait for training camp to start Friday at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho.

There's good reason for that.

Spezza is coming off the worst season of his 15-year NHL career, and is determined to prove he can be better. After posting eight goals among 26 points in 78 games, Spezza said he is motivated.

 

[GOING CAMPING: Click here for complete coverage of Stars training camp from Boise, Idaho]

 

"It was tough, it wasn't a great year for me," Spezza said. "I think it's given me some fire, and sometimes you need that. Sometimes I think I can take for granted how well my career has gone and how easily I've produced over the years. So having a year where I wasn't happy, that has put fire in my belly, and that might extend my career a few years."

Video: DAL@NYR: Spezza beats Pavelec to seal shootout win

Spezza is 35 and on the final year of a four-year contract, so there is a chance his NHL career could be nearing its end. But he doesn't think that's true. The second overall pick in 2001, he came to the Stars averaging a point a game after spending 11 seasons with the Ottawa Senators. While his time on ice dropped playing the second center role in Dallas, he still had 62 points in 2014-15 and 63 in 2015-16.

He even squeezed out 50 points in 68 games in 2016-17, but struggled under coach Ken Hitchcock last season. Spezza saw his time on ice drop from 16:10 to 13 minutes a game, and also had to deal with shuffling from center to right wing. Under new coach Jim Montgomery this season, Spezza should be able to get back into the second line center spot and increase his minutes.

"Our team needs him to produce this year," Montgomery said. "We can't have him at the same production levels as last year. He's going to be a big part of what we do, I know he is."

Spezza believes that, as well. While he understands the decline an athlete deals with as he ages, he said he has done everything he can to put that decline off. He said his workouts have been more intense, and his health is good.

"I think the guys who have success at this age do the right things," Spezza said. "I think I do the right things every day. I'm committed to it and I feel good. I feel better physically than I did when I was 30, and I had some pretty good years then.

Video: DAL@DET: Radulov feeds Spezza for power-play goal

"This league likes good players, and they don't care what age they are."

Spezza has the athletic arrogance that comes with being a top performer, so he said he isn't looking to fade into retirement. He said he knows the Stars need more scoring and he's determined to help provide it.

"I'm here to play," Spezza said. "I've produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don't want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I'm here to produce -- that's what I expect of myself."

Montgomery said he sees ways to use Spezza. The veteran won 55.8 percent of his faceoffs last season and is a strong right-handed presence on the draw. That can create more ice time and opportunities for Spezza.

"His ability to win faceoffs is big," Montgomery said. "He's going to take more D-zone faceoffs than he has in the past, because I'm a big believer that you put centers in a position to succeed, and with us having two righties and two lefties like we do, that's a big help. They are all good at faceoffs, and I think using your centers on their strong side will only make them better."

Video: MIN@DAL: Spezza backhands puck by Dubnyk

Mix in the fact that Spezza can bring the puck up on the power play, and he should be on the ice in plenty of key situations. Spezza said he looks forward to working with Mongomery, who will be transitioning from the NCAA to the NHL this season.

"I've had great talks with Jim. He has great plans for us -- he knows how to win," Spezza said. "He's got a big personality and he's a straight shooter, and I like that. I've had good success with coaches like that in the past. He's a hockey guy and I think we can communicate well."

And one message has already been sent during informal workouts in Frisco.

"I believe in myself," Spezza said. "I look at this as a great challenge and a great opportunity.

"Last year was tough, but now that it's over, I think I can use it."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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