Mitch Marner’s new six-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, signed on Sept. 13, 2019, that was supposed to be the final distraction in the way of a team preparing for what was supposed to be a highly-successful 2019-20 season.
Sure there were nagging questions about the team’s defense but people were anxious to see how the Tyson Barrie trade would work out. When the team’s young restricted free-agent Marner signed and was ready to play opening night, most fans were looking forward to a season of promise.
Well, the season didn’t go as planned. Still, it was an interesting one and not without excitement. But the season also included a roller-coaster ride of good and bad play, a coaching change that – although probably overdue – took many by surprise, injuries to key players, inconsistent play, and yet personal progress among the team’s core of young stars. As good as he was before, Auston Matthews emerged from offseason issues in Arizona to become a stronger two-way player who might have scored 60 goals.
The team was also successful-enough. When the season was suspended, the Maple Leafs were settled into a playoff spot, placing third in the Atlantic Division. And, that’s where the team rests at this point – in limbo.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t news items and rumors emerging from the team and its players. I would like to help Maple Leafs fans keep up with some of them.
Item One: Jason Spezza Plans to Play in 2020-21
In a Mar. 19 article, The Athletic’s James Mirtle put together a list of players he believed could have played their final NHL game with the onset of the coronavirus. In the group of aging veterans he named, the Maple Leafs’ Jason Spezza was among them. It’s a good question: has Spezza played his last NHL game?
As strong as an aging veteran’s body of work has been during a long NHL career, many great players simply don’t make their own decisions about when they retire. Some, sadly, are forced to hang up their skates simply because no one wants them any longer. Where does that leave Spezza?
Here’s what we know. Given his druthers, Spezza wants to continue his career when the 2020-21 NHL season rolls around. According to Mirtle, the Maple Leafs made an analytics-savvy move in adding him and he’s both underrated and inexpensive.
During a 2019-20 season that included regular benchings by former head coach Mike Babcock, then gaining more-or-less regular playing time under new head coach Sheldon Keefe’s leadership, Spezza scored 9 goals and 25 points in 58 games. He averaged just over 10 minutes of ice time per game.
As Mirtle reports, Spezza is intent upon coming back either with the Maple Leafs or another organization to keep his career going next season. His career totals are 341 goals and 940 points in 1,123 career games, (from “Is this the end? 15 NHL players who might have played their last game,” James Mirtle, The Athletic, 03/19/20).
I can’t see why the Maple Leafs wouldn’t want the veteran skater. As my father used to say, “He doesn’t take up much space.” That means that Spezza doesn’t create a lot of drama; he simply does his job without complaint. When Babcock put him in the press box for the opening game against his old team – the Ottawa Senators – Spezza didn’t make a peep. In addition, he’s smart, plays well enough, and adds value to the team.
Item Two: Maple Leafs Prospect Nick Robertson Is Ready to Come Back
According to an article in the Toronto Sun, highly-successful young Maple Leafs prospect Nick Young is back home with his family in California ready to resume hockey whenever that happens. Robertson’s been working out with his hockey-playing brother Jason, who was having a strong rookie season (25 goals and 47 points in 60 games) with the Texas Stars of the AHL when hockey was suspended. The older Robertson played three games with the Dallas Stars during 2019-20, scoring a single assist.
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Given his successful season with the Peterborough Petes, Nick Robertson’s probably similar to most young athletes: he’d rather be playing than sitting. However, he understands that being both patient and ready is the wisest course of action.
He did admit, however: “It’s pretty frustrating, but it’s a big eye-opener for myself, too, in that life is more than just hockey. I’m home in the proper quarantine that everyone is doing, and as much as it sucks, you have to be safe, too. You’re saving lives at the end of the day.”
During his 2019-20 season, the 5-foot-9, 164-pound Robertson scored 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games for the OHL’s Petes. Because AHL by-laws limit the number of 18-year-olds who play in the league, Robertson can’t play for the Toronto Marlies next season, so he’ll try to make the Maple Leafs roster during training camp. That might be tough, but with this young man it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, (from “Leafs prospect Robertson: ‘Life is more than just hockey in wake of coronavirus outbreak,” Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 03/26/20).
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
With the NHL’s situation unknown, late last week, John Tavares posted a message of support and encouragement on Twitter asking hockey fans to play inside and play “for each other.” He also thanked all healthcare and frontline workers for their courage, determination, and hard work as they fight the crisis we are all experiencing.
It’s a good message for everyone. Be well and be wise.