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Spezza plays to his strengths

By BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

Mon, Sep 16, 2002 - As far as Senators top prospect Jason Spezza is concerned, there is no comparison.

Sitting in the club's Corel Centre dressing room after the first on-ice session of training camp, the 19-year-old centre was asked how his performance yesterday matched up to his debut in his first NHL camp last September.

"I think my first day this year was better than all of my camp last year," Spezza said with a smile. "I don't know if I got a goal and two assists in all of training camp last year."

DISAPPOINTED

Last year, former Senators GM Marshall Johnston sent Spezza back to the OHL's Windsor Spitfires at the end of training camp.

And while Spezza initially took the news hard, some simple words of advice from his father might be the reason people are so excited when they talk about the former No. 1 pick at this training camp.

"My dad told me I should try to be better and not bitter," said Spezza. "I could be angry and I could blame (the Sens) if I wanted -- I guess I was that way at first -- but, I think when you sit back and look at things, you realize what happened.

"I realized I wasn't ready.

"I guess you just get hopes and expectations. You want to be here," he said. "(My father) told me I should just try to work harder and try to become better. I've worked hard because I want to get to this level."

Spezza, who finished last season with a brief stint with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, arrived at training camp in better shape and a better frame of mind to try to make the jump to the NHL.

Not only did he work with personal trainer Lorne Goldenberg and Ottawa assistant coach Randy Lee in the off-season to improve his quickness, Spezza is also stronger and more mature.

And yes, the club is impressed.

"I've really liked what I've seen in him so far and he's a nice young man," said Senators GM John Muckler.

"I spoke to him during the developmental camp and I talked to him a couple of times in the summer. He wants to be here.

"The one thing you notice about him is his hands. He's a very creative player and he's gifted offensively. You can live with a guy making mistakes when he's trying to be creative. You don't want people out there playing careful.

"To me, you want players working within their strengths."

According to the scouts, Spezza has to use his speed to be effective -- something he didn't always do in training camp last year.

SPEEDING UP

Now, all Spezza has to do is step on the ice to know that he's quicker. He was the leading scorer in the recent NHL rookie tournament (three goals, five assists), which has gone a long way in building his confidence.

"I think last year I spent a lot of time worrying about making mistakes and I think that had an effect on the way I was playing," Spezza said.

"If I get sent to Binghamton (of the AHL), I won't have a problem going there if I know that I've given everything I've got. I worked hard in the summer to get ready for this. I wanted to come in here and compete for a spot."

Coach Jacques Martin said there is room on the roster for the likes of Spezza (or prospects Antoine Vermette and Anton Volchenkov) if they show they can play.

"If a player is ready to make the next step, we'll find room for them," said Martin.

"I think when you look at (Spezza) this year, he's shown up in good shape and he's definitely improved his quickness. That's good for us.

"He's shown progress and he seems more comfortable."

It may be a long, hard road to the end of training camp, but Spezza has plenty of reasons to smile about his start.

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