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THE MARKETING people at Reebok see Senators center Jason Spezza in his most winsome light. In signing him to a lucrative endorsement deal late last month, the equipment company was drawn to Spezza's boy-next-door good looks and polite manner, as well as his didja-see-that? offensive moves, hot streaks—like 46 points in his first 30 games of last season—and the fact that, whether it pleases Ottawa fans or not, he is likely to remain a fixture in one of the NHL's most devoted markets for years.
Yet there's another take on Spezza, in which he's no less charming off the ice but so frustrating on it that, despite his sweet stickhandling skills and creative playmaking, fans in Ottawa have been on him with uncommon viciousness. Think Alex Rodriguez in the Bronx. Ottawa, a stolid government town, has a history of preferring grind-it-out hockey players to the more artistic types and has had little tolerance for Spezza's reverting to a dabbling, turnover-prone style that too often characterized his early years in the league.
An ostensibly talented team that at week's end was muddling along in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, the Senators would like Spezza, 25, to be the player who in a dazzling 15-game run leading to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals scored 20 points, backchecked, blocked shots and was a thoroughly responsible +7. That performance, along with last season's quick start, inspired Ottawa to give him a seven-year, $49 million contract. The deal came shortly after the Senators had signed sniper Dany Heatley to six years and $45 million; now the contracts may be an albatross. "In a [salary] cap system ... you make your bed with these guys," says G.M. Bryan Murray. "If they don't play at the top of their game every night, you have a difficult time."
Last April, Spezza contributed just one assist in a first-round, four-game loss to Pittsburgh, and even after a hat trick last Saturday he had 21 points in 24 games this season. Criticism had scarcely let up since opening night, when his overtime turnover cost Ottawa the game. The media-friendly Spezza (teammates call TSN, Canada's leading sports channel, The Spezza Network) hasn't shied. "I have to be better," he says. "A lot of our team success is mirrored by how my games have gone. Sometimes I try to do too much."
To trade Spezza would set in motion a rebuilding process that Murray seems reluctant to undertake. Nor would a trade be easy to make, given Spezza's salary and his reputation as a player with an aversion to contact. Asked on TSN whether he would consider acquiring the 6'3", 215-pound Spezza, Flyers senior VP Bob Clarke said in part, "I would question myself.... I don't think anybody fears playing against Jason Spezza."
Just as A-Rod, seen by many Yankees fans as a poor clutch player, sometimes got booed last year upon hitting an unimportant bases-empty homer, even Spezza's successes are being diminished. After an inspired game against the Thrashers last week, naysayers quickly pointed out that it had come against Atlanta's hands-off defense. For now, Spezza can't win. The more pressing issue in Ottawa is, Can the Senators win with him?
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