Monday, July 27, 2009

Underrated Summer Signing:

Where's Spacek?

Late last week, the NHL website ran an article about the top 10 signings that flew under the radar so far this summer.

It's a funny thing, this underrating. While I do agree that most of the signings they have identified garnered slightly less attention than most, doesn't the very fact that they now appear on this list make them rated? or dare I say overrated?

Take their number 2, Rob Scuderi. The guy was listed on all the lists before the day. He was looked at as a prime target. I give him credit for being on the Stanley Cup finalist for two years in a row and for being a winner this year. But he only made the NHL when he was 25, had a few pretty uneventful seasons and now the team that he supposedly held together for a Cup run has let him go in favour of cheaper options. It seems to me he could just as easily be in an overrated list of free agents. After all, he's not the first 4th defenceman to ever play for a Cup winning team.

Dan Rosen, the author of the piece, didn't think too much of the Canadiens (former or new) on the whole, as their proportional representation is low. Perhaps he thought the moves already garnered the attention they deserved. Of all the outgoings and incomings, Dan chose to highlight Paul Mara as perhaps the most underrated of all Bob Gainey's summer moves. He says:
9. Paul Mara, Montreal – The Canadiens underwent a major roster overhaul with Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill coming aboard. The most underrated addition, though, could be Mara. He's a reliable defender with a heavy shot. He's also a likeable guy who will get along well with teammates and will become a favorite with the Montreal media. That's an underrated skill.

I can't say I disagree. At least not with his logic – as a 5th defenceman Mara could be a decent pick up, especially if he shoots straight as well. But I couldn't help but think that the move didn't seem all that underrated to me, at least not in Montreal.

In fact, looking across all the free agent and trade additions, there have been varying degrees of coverage. Gomez has probably taken the lion's share. I would say that Cammalleri is a very close second behind him. Gionta's had some real media coverage and so has Hal Gill as a Stanley Cup winner/giant. Then Moen and Mara, possibly by virtue of their late signing got quite a parade of recognition as well. Moen is certainly not underrated in the least by our fans. As for Mara, I might have agreed except for the personal experience of having been rebuffed by a number of his supporters when I initially bashed him.

Among all the NHL level signings (sorry Sanford and Darche), it is actually Jaroslav Spacek that stands out as the underappreciated one thus far. If I do a search for Spacek blogs now I find very little at all beyond the day of the signing. And on that day it was quickly to press to keep up with the next move. His move obviously hasn't flown completely under the radar. but I feel it's been the most overlooked of all the additions.

Naturally then, I am going to remedy that by making him a very rated signing in the LIW books. A little bit of fair due for the man who hopes to be Markov's deputy on the PP.

Who is Jaroslave Spacek?

You know, it's a good question. Prior to Gainey signing him, I never thought twice about this player. I remember him from Florida days and then as part of a pretty awful team in Columbus. His stints in Chicago and even Edmonton must have slipped my mind.

But it's interesting though, just as you will have overrated players on winning teams (Scuderi), there are undoubtedly good players being buried on down-right awful teams. It may well be the case that Spacek was one of those.

Undrafted even at the age of 24, he looked to be set for a career in Europe. But 1997-98 was to prove a banner year from the young Czech defender. Having chosen to move away from the domestic league in favour of a place on Swedish champions Farjestads, he suddenly was getting noticed. His season at Farjestads saw him become develop his offensive game against more skilled opposition, and ended with a league championship. The icing on the cake for Spacek was his selection to the 1998 Czech Olympic team. One of the few non-NHLers on the team, Spacek still played his part in making the defensive charge to gold ahead of Dominik Hasek. 6 games and 6 GA says a lot about Hasek, but also a bit about the defenders – of whom the Canadiens now boast two.

That summer the Florida Panthers took a Mark Streit flyer on the 24-year-old Spacek, a player who now comfortably fits into the top ten Florida selections of all time (though that's not saying much). Florida would bring him over the very next fall for camp, at which Jaro promptly dispatched of the competition and made the big club without a minute in the minor leagues. And though by ice time he was clearly slotted in at number 6, he finished the season as the leader in plus/minus on the non-playoff team. The following season, with Jovanovski out in favour of Pavel Bure, Spacek continued to climb the ranks. In ice time, he trailed only perennial 40-point man Robert Svehla and again put up numbers that got noticed. More importantly, the season ended with some team success and the last playoff appearance for the Panthers to date.

Firmly established as an NHL defenceman, Spacek entered the next phase of his NHL career, where trades became more commonplace. First to Chicago and the to Columbus where he was to become the #1 defenceman for the otherwise pathetic outfit.

had he stayed in Columbus, this story probably would be ending differently, but after a return to Europe during the lockout, complete with a WC gold, he came back and was chased by his former team the Chicago Blackhawks. It was a return to force for Jaro as he managed to lead the Hawks in +/- as a top-pairing D despite only 45 games there. Midway through the season he was traded to a then marginal Edmonton Oilers club. Spacek and the team did manage a rally late to squeak in as the 8th seed and put on a spectacular show as they got to within a game from hoisting the Cup.

Like Scuderi, Spacek saw his window of opportunity and promptly left the Oilers for his million-dollar opportunity with the Buffalo Sabres. And that's where he would stay for the next 3 seasons. Particularly telling fomr his time in Buffalo was the way his ice time and role increased every step of the way. In his first year, Spacek was back of the queue for a surging Buffalo team. His second season he overtook Lydman, Tallinder, Kalinin and Numminen to become the #2; and the last season with Campbell out, he took #1 minutes on a very decent team.

Missed when he departs

We know a little bit about this in Montreal, having lost some very dependable pieces this summer. But it must be said that not all players get a shining write up when they opt to skip town. In Jaro's case, it happens over and over. Chicago speaks for itself with the re-acquisition.

Out of Edmonton, he got top mentions from fans doubtful about a return trip to the final:
"The losses of Pronger and Spacek will hurt the most, without question, while the departures of Peca and Samsonov are decidedly less impacting but tangible nonetheless."

And it was similar stuff from Sabres fans this summer:
The Sabres are going to miss Spacek at both ends of the ice. He was the Sabres best defenseman last season but they were unwilling to go beyond one year. The Sabres have a plethora of young talented defenders and they expect some of those players to contribute in the next season or two.

Fun with numbers

As I was searching to try and figure out who Spacek was, I came across a very interesting little tidbit that I'm sure will interest the stats geeks among you.

2008/09 Top 20 Adjusted Corsi Numbers

NumberNameTeamAdj. CORSI
1Ryan GetzlafAna+313.0
2Corey PerryAna+282.0
3Alexander OvechkinWas+266.2
4Zach PariseNJ+256.8
5Eric StaalCar+237.0
6Pavel DatsyukDet+235.4
7Scott GomezNYR+227.0
8Brian RafalskiDet+226.4
9Mike GreenWas+221.4
10Dan BoyleSJ+219.8
11Niklas KronwallDet+207.4
12Nicklas LidstromDet+206.4
13David MossCgy+199.6
14Daniel SedinVan+198.6
15Brian CampbellChi+195.4
16Jaroslav SpacekBuf+187,2
17Henrik SedinVan+182.6
18Joni PitkanenCar+182.0
19Nicklas BackstromWas+181.2
20Nikolai ZherdevNYR+180.0

Impressive to see two Habs there, and Spacek among the top 20 in the league. I think one has to agree with the author of this piece when he says:
"It looks like the Montreal Canadiens use this kind of analysis when signing free agents. They acquired Scott Gomez and Jaroslav Spacek this summer and both appear on this list."

A little look around does loads for the optimism in my case here. I have to say I was pelasantly surprised by what I found and I hope we all be later this year, as well. I'll just leave you with the very best of everything I've read, the bit that makes me feel most like Spacek will be the underrated signing of the year for us:
"No one really knew how good of a hockey player he was because he was playing for obscure, losing teams," agent Stephen Freyer said from his office in Beverly, Mass. "The exposure in Edmonton helped, but the new NHL was incredible for his game. He's the prototypical post-lockout defenseman. He can skate, pass, get the puck out of the zone. He's got a boomer from the right point."

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