Tracking A Phenom – First Installment

By Bob Chery

A harbinger of things to come?

Returning to the rinks from a rumored summer to begin mapping
the odysseys of this year’s NHL Draft hopefuls, it didn’t take
long for 17 year-old Mississauga Ice Dogs Captain Jason Spezza
to make an enormous impression.

One period to be exact.

When the dust had settled, the Ice Dogs found themselves leading
the Sudbury Wolves 5-2 after 20 minutes, and the challenge in
describing Spezza’s play is to not become too redundant with the
superlatives.

The Dogs were staked to an early two-goal lead thanks to a
dizzying array of skills put on display by Spezza as he set up
the first three Mississauga goals. His artistry with the puck
included undressing defencemen and putting himself into the
clear for a break-away, although he was stopped by goaltender
Jason Brown. With puck in tow, he was constantly finding and
creating open-ice for himself and for his teammates to whom he
would feed short, deft passes or medium-range passes that would
hit the tape, all the while displaying great vision,
anticipation, and hockey sense.

With the Dogs on a power-play and the face-off outside the
Sudbury blueline, Spezza eschewed the usual drawing back of the
puck and instead shot the puck forward into the corner of the
Sudbury zone. The Wolves defencemen had by this time shown an
alarming propensity for coughing up and turning over the puck in
their own end, and sure enough aggressive forechecking caused
yet another turnover. A tic-tac-toe passing sequence from
Wiseman-to-Jarrett-to-Ennafffati resulted in the fourth Ice Dogs
goal, and although Spezza was kept off the scoresheet for this
one, he was nevertheless instrumental in it’s creation.

Less than three minutes later, Jason stole the puck from Sudbury
defenceman Dennis Wideman at the Mississauga blueline, and was
off to the races for his 2nd breakaway of the period. This time
he made no mistake as a shoulder-fake, forehand, backhand, one
shuck and one jive for good measure left Brown in a contorted
heap as Spezza slid the puck into the gaping net at 18:19.
Although the Wolves would score in the last minute to narrow the
gap to 5-2, Brown would be replaced at the start of the 2nd
period in an act of mercy on the part of Coach Bert Templeton.

The assault on the Sudbury goal continued in the middle frame as
the Ice Dogs outshot the Wolves 17-8, but the only goal of the
period was scored by Sudbury’s Fedor Fedorov at 13:57, narrowing
the Mississauga lead to 5-3.

The second stanza provided an interesting contrast between two
draft-eligible goaltenders, Sudbury’s Miguel Beaudry and the Ice
Dogs’ Michael Mole. Beaudry has a certain polish and technique
to his style, and the strongest area of his goaltending
coincides with where young shooters are taught to shoot most
often – low to the stick side. Miguel was tested about eight
times in that area but showed a quick left pad on every
occasion. He played his angles well and could execute the basics
of puck handling on shoot-ins and clearing attempts. Mole on the
other hand is more of an acrobat, busy in his crease while
trying to get any available body part in the way of the puck.
Exciting to be sure, but no doubt causing periodic bouts of
cardiac arrest for his coaches. Mole will have to continue
working on his fundamentals and technique to solidify his
goaltending.

Although held pointless for the period, Spezza continued to be a
threat, even on a rare penalty-killing shift where he wheeled
down the left-wing on a 1-on-1 only to have his slapshot get
deflected harmlessly away from the net. Play continued, and 20
seconds later a clearing pass from the Ice Dogs zone just missed
Jason, which would’ve sprung him for another 1-on-1 break.

On another occasion on the back-check, Spezza lifted the stick
of a Sudbury player, stole the puck, and headed up ice on the
left wing. He looked faster than last year. Approaching
6-foot-3, his long stride covers a lot of ice. He doesn’t slow
down when carrying the puck, he can control it at maximum
speed. And even if someone can catch him or keep up with him,
his puck skills transcend mere keep-away, he can consistently
beat people 1-on-1.

The teams exchanged goals in the 3rd period with Spezza
collecting his fifth point of the night on a goal by Brian
McGrattan, who smartly held onto the puck for an extra second as
Beaudry, who likes to get down low and take away the bottom of
the net, committed himself to his knees too early and left the
upper part of the net wide open. This was a tendency that Miguel
displayed on a few occasions and the Dogs were finally able to
capitalize on it. This appears to be the biggest weakness in
Beaudry’s game, but he nevertheless looks like a goaltending
prospect that warrants attention.

The Wolves also displayed two blueliners eligible for the
upcoming NHL Draft, Dennis Wideman and Drew Kivell. On this
night, the offensive aspects of Wideman’s game showed well, but
he struggled defensively. He didn’t appear to be particularly
fast on the occasions where he had to hustle back to his end of
the rink to fetch the puck. He is easily the best puck handler
among the Sudbury blue-liners who battled the puck all night
long.

Kivell is a stay-at-home defenceman with size who skates well
enough to pinch on offensive forays and still get back into
position afterwards, unfortunately he doesn’t have much
offensive ability. He’s a willing, physical player in his own
end of the rink, but he had trouble all night corralling
forwards with the puck, and on one occasion Ice Dogs rookie Pat
Jarrett totally undressed him on a 1-on-1. The raw materials are
here with this kid and it will be interesting to see how much he
improves as the season wears on.

The story tonight however was Spezza, and as the season
progresses I would expect him to move from mere favorite to
prohibitive favorite as the #1 overall pick next June.
We could be witnessing the emergence of an impact player at the
NHL level, as good as anyone not named Gretzky or Lemieux.