The Toronto Maple Leafs have been lucky to have Jason Spezza for the last three seasons, but now Spezza will be fortunate if the team brings him back. The second overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft is weeks away from his 39 birthday, and his game reflects it. Perhaps on a different team that is desperate for forwards, the veteran would have a spot, but Toronto’s farm system is full of young, skilled forwards ready to crack the roster. This conundrum is one of many Kyle Dubas, and the front office will have to address in the offseason.
Spezza had a deer-in-headlights look during the season-ending interviews with the media. He appeared dumbfounded during the 11-minute question and answers. “I truly believed the team was going to break through this year,” said Spezza, “I put a lot of effort into trying to get the group over the edge and to fail again is frustrating for myself. It leads me to ask myself questions like did I do enough, did I push the right buttons, did I do everything I could do to help the team.”
Spezza Will Only Play in Toronto
Unfortunately, he had no answers for how the season ended, and he had no answers about his future. “I love the game,” he said, “I’ve always maintained if I can provide significance to the group, if I’m a contributor every night then I want to play. So, conversations have to be had between me and management and coaches, but this is the only place I will play.”
Spezza did not dress for the first two games of the playoffs, he was a healthy scratch 11 times in the regular season, and his ice time was reduced with fourth-line minutes. While that may not appear to be a significant contribution, it’s everything else he brings to the organization that has an influence. For example, it was Spezza who spoke to his teammates at the intermission of Game 5, sparking a comeback. He is usually the first on and last off at practice, and he is often seen talking to the young guys and providing on-ice coaching.
Dubas addressed the situation in his season-ending interview, “it’s hard to really, sitting here, to fully describe the impact that (Spezza) has had on the team positively. Obviously, his contributions to the roster, but in the locker room, in the summer, the time he puts in with every single young player from the day he’d arrived, he’s a special person. So, I think there would probably be 31 teams other than us that would have an interest in having him be a part of it in some way.”
Spezza Faces Increased Internal Competition
But does Toronto is the question? Nick Robertson, Joey Andersen, Nick Abruzzese, Alex Steeves are just a few Marlies who appear ready for NHL action, or at least a chance. How much longer can the Maple Leafs stall their young forwards development and career trajectories to keep Spezza playing before it becomes detrimental to the team?
However, the Leafs’ salary cap situation makes signing a well-respected leader, who can still unload a wicked slap shot, to a league minimum, a practical choice. Plus, Toronto may need to clear out some other forwards with larger contracts to sign a goalie and some blueliners, which would leave more than enough room for Spezza and some young guns.
Finally, Spezza is just five points away from 1000 in the NHL. That alone is likely enough for Dubas to do what he can to have this special player and person back in the blue and white next season. There is no doubt he will play his last game in the NHL as a Maple Leaf. Did that already happen? I believe he will be back. He will likely be working with the Maple Leafs for several years after his playing career ends.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.