On July 1, 2019, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they had signed 36-year-old center Jason Spezza to a one-year, $700,000 contract. Spezza, who was a point-per-game player in four different seasons with the Ottawa Senators, had seen his scoring prowess diminish considerably. In fact, he was coming off a season with the Dallas Stars where he scored eight goals and 27 points in 76 games.
Still, for the league-minimum salary, Spezza seemed like a worthwhile gamble. If he had any gas in his tank, he might be the bargain the team needed. In addition, Spezza, a Toronto-area native, was coming home to play.
General manager Kyle Dubas believed Spezza would play in the bottom six and perhaps mentor younger players. Despite poor recent offensive production, he retained strong faceoff skills with a 58.2% success rate in 2018-19.
One player who lauded his former teammate’s potential value to the Maple Leafs was the Stars’ Tyler Seguin, who noted: “He’s the first guy I text or call when it comes to hockey. He’s going to do a great job with all the young guys in Toronto.”
Although fans wondered if he would be happy with a bottom-six placement, Spezza not only didn’t complain but noted he had already adjusted to playing on the fourth line:
“I produced my whole life, and you have a high expectation of where you’re at and where you should be in the lineup. So the first year of transition was tougher than others. But now I’ve played that role for a couple of years (with the Stars) and I feel comfortable doing it. And I know what it has to look like, what I have to do,” (from “Life with the Maple Leafs an adjustment for veteran Jason Spezza,” Kevin McGran, The Star, 09/16/19).
A Controversial Game 1
Game one of 2019-20 featured Spezza facing off against his old team, the Senators and, for the first time in his career, he was starting in his hometown in front of family and friends. It might have been the stuff of history, but head coach Mike Babcock didn’t see it that way.
Babcock made Spezza a healthy scratch and announced that he would play the next game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He also said he would rotate the fourth line this season. Babcock added that the veteran center needed more work on the penalty kill.
Many reacted, noting that such treatment was mean-spirited and demanded Babcock be fired. Spezza didn’t blink in public. He played one of the first three games of the season and scored a point.
Even in mid-October when center John Tavares when down with a broken finger, Spezza didn’t get much ice time. After being a healthy scratch for several games, in their Nov. 2 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, that went to an 11-round shootout, won by the Maple Leafs 4-3, Spezza scored his first goal and added an assist. He also kept the team alive in the shootout.
Still, Spezza didn’t dress the next game against the Los Angeles Kings or the next against the Vegas Golden Knights. His goal, assist, and shootout score couldn’t keep him in the lineup. He sat.
On Nov. 16, Spezza scored the team’s only goal in a 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, when no one else showed up. He then had two points – a goal and an assist – in a 4-2 road loss to the Golden Knights. Spezza had scored in consecutive games for the first time since Oct. 19-23, 2018, when he was with the Stars and had three goals and five points in five games in November.
However, he was mostly alone in his success. The team lost six games in a row and was making a statement, not a good one. But, it was a statement that Dubas obviously heard.
On Nov. 20, the Maple Leafs’ season turned around when Babcock was relieved of his coaching duties. Spezza’s season also immediately improved when new head coach Sheldon Keefe arrived. He began to play regularly and the team started to win.
As Spezza’s play improved so did his enthusiasm for the game and – even as a veteran – so did his confidence. In late November, after he had scored three goals and seven points in eight games, he announced:
“I was excited to come to practice (Thursday), I had a few things I wanted to work on and it just keeps you engaged and motivated. I’m excited to play the game right now because I feel like I can even get better than how I’m going,” (from “Scratch that earlier usage, Spezza knows he can be an asset for Maple Leafs”, Terry Koshan, The Toronto Sun, 11/29/19).
Spezza’s Next Few Months
Over the next four months, Spezza played more regularly. At times, he played with Tavares and Ilya Mikheyev among the team’s top-six forward lines. He replaced other top-six players – like Mitch Marner – as needed. By the end of December, he played in eight straight games before he sat.
When he played, he had success. In a crazy game against the Carolina Hurricanes, he scored 30 seconds into the game only to see the ‘Canes score five unanswered goals to take a 5-3 lead into the third period. The Maple Leafs came roaring back for a wild 8-6 victory.
On Jan. 29, when they played the Stars, Spezza started. He had played with the Stars for five seasons before signing with the Maple Leafs and he had many friends there, noting that:
“I had a great time in Dallas, I enjoyed the organization, enjoyed living there. The organization was really good. Jim Nill runs a great operation, the trainers were guys I got along with really well and Jamie Benn has become one of my best buddies,” (from “Many happy returns with Spezza in Dallas,” Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, 01/28/20).
On Feb. 1, he played against his other former team – the Senators – and scored a power-play goal in the team’s overtime win. It was his eighth of the season and equaled his scoring total over the last two seasons with the Stars.
Where Does Spezza Stand Now?
Spezza’s regular season has now ended with nine goals and 25 points in 58 games. It wasn’t his best but he enjoyed it. Two weeks ago, in Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts, the Maple Leafs’ depth forward reported that he didn’t believe this season would be his last.
Although Spezza’s older and was used sparingly, it doesn’t mean he wants to quit lacing up his skates. He wants to play and believes he can. The question is: Do the Maple Leafs want him to return? I hope the answer is yes.