In a move that seems to have gone under everyone’s radar, on July 1 the Toronto Maple Leafs signed free-agent center Jason Spezza to a one-year contract with a salary-cap hit of $700,000. During the 2018 offseason, the team had signed free-agent John Tavares.
Both players returned to their hometowns to play with a team they grew up watching. Spezza’s signing had little of the hoopla that bringing Tavares home had, but it still was an astute move by general manager Kyle Dubas. He knows the team needs players with skill and experience, and Spezza has both in spades.
Spezza is a 36-year-old, Toronto native and a 16-year NHL veteran. Prior to coming to the Maple Leafs, he played with the Dallas Stars for 5 seasons and the Ottawa Senators for 11. He’s been an all-star and he’s led a team (the Senators in 2007) to the Stanley Cup Finals.
What Does Spezza Bring to the Team?
For me, Spezza is the kind of player — and this is the kind of deal — that the Maple Leafs need to do and need to do often. It has a potentially large upside and little downside. I applaud Spezza’s signing. What he has left in his tank, we’ll soon see. However, he certainly has the ice-smarts and the skill to become a valuable depth-center for the team.
Last season with the Stars, Spezza played in 76 games. He scored 8 goals, 19 assists, and 27 points. However, he also won 58.2 percent of his faceoffs, and that one skill might be something the team will need at some crucial point in a game. In fact, he was tied for the best face-off percentage among all NHL centers last season.
His NHL totals include 332 goals, 583 assists, and 915 points in 1,065 games. In addition, he has 80 games of playoff experience, where he has scored 25 goals, 45 assists, and 70 points.
What Does Spezza Think About Playing with the Maple Leafs?
About Mitch Marner
Late last week, Spezza was interviewed on TSN and weighed in on several topics about his upcoming season as a newcomer on the Maple Leafs.
First, obviously, any interviewer these days seems obligated to ask all Maple Leafs players what they think about the ongoing negotiations between Mitch Marner and Dubas. And, in a now-common response, Spezza just sort of shrugged his shoulders and suggested that Marner’s negotiations were just the state of affairs between organizations and players in today’s NHL. What else can you say, I guess?
Last week, in an interview, John Tavares said the same. A few weeks ago, Frederik Andersen did as well; however, Andersen added that he had talked to Marner, but they had never brought up the negotiations. He suggested that was “Marner’s business.” I realize I live in a different world, but watching these negotiations has confused me about what I see as an artificial line between “personal” player business and team business.
Specifically, Spezza noted that he believed it would all work out and that he believed Marner would be with the team for a long time.
About Auston Matthews
Second, Spezza did a quick take about what it’s like to watch Auston Matthews from afar and how interesting it is to see him do what he does on a daily basis. He’s quite amazed with Matthews’ on-ice skills, calling them “second to none.” In listening to him talk, Spezza seems to be a bit of a fan of hockey himself, saying that, “the guy [Matthews] is definitely exciting.”
About John Tavares
However, for me, the most interesting aspect of Spezza’s interview was his take on what it would be like to be teammates with John Tavares. That aspect excited him the most about playing in Toronto. Noting that he trained with John Tavares for several summers, he paid tribute to the hard work Tavares engaged outside of the game to make himself as great a player as he is.
During his interview, Spezza offered a few hints why he might have come to the Maple Leafs on such a bargain-basement deal. First, Tavares was just a guy that he enjoyed being around. He raved about Tavares’ intensity and constant desire to get better.
Second, he noted “JT’s” smooth transition from the New York Islanders to playing last year in his hometown for the first time. That Spezza is also from the area suggests to fans why he might be excited about playing in Toronto. He was specific about how nice it was to be around family and friends.
Finally, Spezza noted that it’s great to play on a team that has a chance to compete.
Spezza on His Role on the Team
What’s his role with the team? He said he was, “coming in trying to be a good support piece for the team.” He outlined his goals as (a) finding a niche on the team quickly, (b) finding a way to contribute, and (c) just being a “good teammate.”
Obviously, Spezza knows his role is a different role than “JT” assumed when he came to the team in the middle of his prime. However, he’s both looking forward to finding a place on the team and he’s taking that opportunity very seriously. He believes it will be worth the hard work when the team gets to the playoffs. And, he called the changes on the team as both significant and positive.
orward to Spezza’s Contribution
As I noted, I believe Spezza has the potential to be a strong addition to the team. I also admit that I am a sucker for these kinds of stories. If Tyler Ennis could come in last season and add value to the team in a limited role, how could Spezza not add similar value?
I recall watching him play and the explosive skill he demonstrated for 16 seasons. I’m looking forward to more — albeit on a limited basis. And that seems good enough for me.