Jason Spezza's exit leaves Sens with more than just scoring void

The Ottawa Senators will need their centres to beef up in the face-off circle to help improve an underrated aspect of team defence: puck possession.

Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, David Legwand need to improve in face-off circle

Ottawa Senators, from left to right, Kyle Turris, David Legwand and Mika Zibanejad, will also have to improve in the face-off circle to help make up for the loss of Jason Spezza. (CBC)

The Ottawa Senators arrive for the first day of on-ice work on Friday, and questions abound about how the team will fill the scoring void left by Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, who are now in Dallas.

Scoring, however, isn't the only problem. The defence was abysmal last year and head coach Paul MacLean says this year will be different. But, how will the defence improve with essentially the same group back there?

And one overlooked question lies in the face-off draw, which fuels the team’s puck possession.

The Senators have lost their best face-off guy in Spezza, who was the 19th-best face-off man in the NHL last season and has always been among the league’s best in that category. He won 54 per cent of his draws in 2013-14.

Of those centres entering Sens’ camp this year, Zack Smith was the best last year ranking 32nd in the NHL — winning 52.7 per cent of his draws. Kyle Turris was at 50.8 per cent and David Legwand was right behind him at 50.7 per cent, while Mika Zibanejad won only 46 per cent of his draws.

There are, on average, about 60 face-offs per a 60-minute NHL game. Many are in either the offensive or defensive end and can lead directly to a shot for or shot against, as well as having control of the puck.

Trusting a guy to win control of the puck is vital.

"It’s going to be a challenge that I think I’m ready for. I’m just really excited," Turris said Thursday as he and his teammates completed the first day of training camp with off-ice workouts.

Turris knows he will take the majority of face-offs — including the most important ones — and success there can translate into more puck possession, which can also be one of the best forms of defence.

"(I learned) from when Spezza was hurt (in 2013) what it was like to be playing that role and how tough it can be," Turris said. “I’m just going to try and prepare and now I have a better knowledge of what to expect.”

Puck possession means fewer shots allowed

The Detroit Red Wings have exemplified how puck possession limits the number of shots allowed. It’s what Detroit’s former assistant coach, MacLean, tried to bring to Ottawa.

Two years ago, it seemed to work, but last season nothing went the way the coach hoped. MacLean said Thursday his team also needs to work harder for the puck, which will also fuel better possession numbers.

"Our biggest issue that we’ve had is our play without the puck and that’s the focus of our training camp," said MacLean, "Not only play better positionally without the puck, but to play better competitively without the puck."

Zibanejad is one man who will see his number called more often and his play put under the spotlight. Improving his face-off stats will be only one goal.

Ottawa Senators' head coach Paul Maclean says Mika Zibanejad will be counted on more this year as enters his third NHL season. (CBC)
"We expect that Mika is ready to take the next step. Physically, his body is more mature, which is going to help him take the next step. But at the same time, we want to make sure we evaluate it on an ongoing basis to make sure we’re not putting him in positions that he might not be ready for," MacLean said.

David Legwand was brought in to help cushion Zibanejad as he takes on a bigger role.  At 21, the young Swede might have some hiccups as the second-line centre. If so, the veteran Legwand will fill that ice time. MacLean also believes Smith will play a larger role.

All three will also have to improve in the draw, but it’s Zibanejad, the sixth overall pick in 2011 who is expected to step up offensively and realize his potential.

"I don’t think, just because Jason’s gone, I have to change my style of game. I don’t think that’s what they want," he said Thursday.

"I think, as a young player, you pretty much have to improve everything. I’ve been working on overall strength this year and hopefully that will show. Like I said, I feel better on the ice."

Puck possession will be vital to this team’s success as it tries to prove prognosticators wrong. Young players like Zibanejad will also have to progress, which is something few did in a forgettable 2012-13 season.


Jamie Long is a digital journalist, producer and editor with CBC Ottawa. You can reach him at