Jason Spezza remembers what it was like being a young star in the NHL — the demands, the pressure, the expectations.
The impact that veteran leaders had on his early career remain equally fresh in his 36-year-old mind. It wasn’t so much what they did, but how they did it.
That’s part of the package Spezza’s hoping to bring to the Toronto Maple Leafs after signing with his hometown team for the league minimum in free agency this summer.
Selected second overall at the 2001 NHL draft, the flashy centre with silky-smooth hands had all the tools when he first walked into the Ottawa Senators’ locker room.
Soaking up the knowledge offered him by the team’s veterans is what he credits with keeping him in the game long enough to see an 18th professional season.
“I had great leaders … Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Curtis Leschyshyn, Bryan Smolinski,” Spezza recalled at the start of Leafs training camp. “They were just every-day pros, and that taught me to be an every-day pro.
“I think that’s why I’ve been able to play for so long.”
Spezza’s Ready to Help
And on a roster in Toronto loaded with young star power like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — 22-year-old forwards carrying burdens not unlike what Spezza experienced in the nation’s capital — he’s ready to help.
“It’s almost like a ‘pay-it-forward’ thing,” Spezza said. “Now it’s your job to show the way.”
Born in Toronto and raised in nearby Mississauga, Ont., Spezza had a difficult final two seasons with the Dallas Stars before signing with the Leafs, putting up just 26 and 27 points, including eight goals in each campaign.
He’s scored 332 times and registered 915 points in 1,065 regular-season games with Ottawa and Dallas to go along with 70 points (25 goals, 45 assists) in 80 playoff outings.
But long gone are the days of Spezza putting up 80-plus points as a No. 1 centre. He knows his role will be much different in Toronto — he got a taste of it last season in Dallas when he was bumped to the bottom-6 forward group.
“At first it’s a difficult transition when you’re used to kind of being ‘The Guy’ and you’re judged by how you’re producing offensively,” he said. “It becomes a reality of how you’re going to contribute. Once you get comfortable with it, it becomes easier.”
Reason for Signing
Spezza’s made nearly US$90 million in his career, so it goes without saying the six-foot-three, 215-pound forward didn’t come home for the $700,000 heading his way in 2019-20.
It’s about legacy and getting what could be one last opportunity at hoisting the Stanley Cup after getting agonizingly close when Ottawa lost to Anaheim in the 2007 final.
“It gives me a chance to play on a team that has a real chance to win,” Spezza said. “It’s an exciting core.”
Spezza’s Role with Maple Leafs
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has sent mixed signals about Spezza in recent days, but it’s believed along with providing depth up front and helping in the faceoff circle, he’ll be tasked with bolstering the team’s No. 2 power-play unit that struggled to create last season.
“There’s a role here for him, but he’s got to be able to do it,” Babcock told reporters in St. John’s, N.L., earlier this week. “We’re just in the process of feeling him out, and he’s in the process of feeling us out.”
Stan Butler coached Spezza when he was an underage star at 15 with the Brampton Battalion in the Ontario Hockey League, and the two have remained close.
Butler pumped the brakes a little on the idea that Spezza would ever be a defence-first player, but said that doesn’t mean he can’t be valuable if used properly.
“Most NHL teams now want four lines that can score,” said Butler, who currently heads the OHL’s North Bay Battalion. “No team’s more into analytics than the Leafs.
“I’m sure somewhere, somehow something’s come up favourable on him and having him in whatever role they envision.”
Butler added Toronto will be getting the best Jason Spezza the player can provide at this stage of his career.
“If he didn’t think he could do it, he wouldn’t do it,” Butler said. “There’s two motivations for him to play in Toronto. One is he’d love to finally win a Cup. And two, that he’s going to play in his hometown.
“When you’re a Toronto kid, there’s something special there.”
Leafs centre John Tavares, who himself came home last summer in free agency, said Spezza’s impact will be important after veterans Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey moved on this summer.
“Spezz is going to be able to relate in very similar ways to our group,” Tavares said. “His skill set and his desire to be here and fit a role and come be a part of this, I think speaks volumes.”
Dallas sniper Tyler Seguin said in August after Spezza signed with the Leafs that he’ll miss bouncing ideas off his older teammate in both good times and bad.
The veteran centre will no doubt be there to do the same if Matthews, Marner or another young Leaf comes calling.
“It was a very important part of my development to have good leaders around me,” Spezza said. “Now you try to give that back.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2019.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press