On Thursday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lighting, their second consecutive test from a Stanley Cup contender after being dealt a hard-fought 3-2 loss by the team that hoisted the Cup last season – the St. Louis Blues.
As the club prepares for their Atlantic Division showdown Thursday, veteran Jason Spezza will skate in his second consecutive contest for the first time this season after being involved in the early-season fourth-line rotation deployed by head coach Mike Babcock.
If we knew there was going to be a rotation on the fourth line entering the season, odds are we didn’t know it would involve Spezza, the player the Maple Leafs inked to a league-minimum deal on the opening day of unrestricted free agency – a day usually reserved for lucrative, multi-year deals being handed out to the game’s best free agents.
For Thursday, at least, Spezza has avoided the game-in, game-out rotation bestowed upon him in the early going. Here’s why.
It’s a tiny sample size of just two games played so far this season for the 16-year-veteran, however Spezza has looked good in the early going, and his head coach has taken notice.
The Spezza-Babcock relationship didn’t get off to the best of starts, however. The head coach appeared to seem uncommitted to the long-time Ottawa Senator from the get-go, the first sign that the fit might between player and coach might not be as seamless as one would think given the respect Spezza has earned around the NHL.
Seemingly challenged from the get-go from his new bench boss, Spezza, being the professional that he is, set out to prove to his head coach that he is indeed interested in playing a lesser role among a star-studded Maple Leafs forward corps.
Spezza dressed for just three of the team’s eight preseason contests, however he made his mark as soon as he got into the lineup for a regular season contest last Friday at the Columbus Blue Jackets. Spezza drew a first-period interference call that eventually led to the Maple Leafs opening the scoring on a Mitch Marner power play strike.
Spezza was a possession beast in his one as well with the Maple Leafs controlling 100% of the shot attempts while he was on the ice at even strength. Spezza went on to skate just 10:36 in Columbus, but he also recorded two shots on goal. All told, his first game with his hometown Maple Leafs was a success.
After sitting out the following night at home against the Montreal Canadiens, Spezza got back into the lineup for Monday’s contest against the Blues, and once again he showed his worth. Spezza notched his first point as a Maple Leaf, showing beautiful hand-eye coordination in knocking a loose puck out of mid-air (twice) into the slot where linemate Frederik Gauthier could bang home his second of the season.
Spezza’s line once again dominated possession in this game as well with the Maple Leafs controlling 71.4% of the shot attempts while he was on the ice at even strength. That mark topped both John Tavares and Auston Matthews on the night. For the second straight game, Spezza went 50% in the faceoff circle, however this time he was 60% in his own zone (3-2). Defensive zone draws will be a staple of his new role this season.
Through three games, Spezza sits with a whopping 77.4% Corsi For% at even strength, has five shots in goal in just 9:54 of average ice time and is 47.4% in the faceoff circle, as per Hockey-Reference. For the limited role he’s seeing, he’s flourished to this point.
Prior to this season, Spezza had accrued 16 seasons of NHL service time, skated in 1,068 regular season games, tallied 332 goals and 916 points in that time, good for a 0.86 points-per-game pace. He’s skated in another 80 postseason contests, tallying another 25 goals and 70 points across 10 trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s appeared in two All-Star games and represented Canada in four IIHF World Hockey Championship tournaments. Yet, upon arriving to Maple Leafs training camp on Sep. 13 in Newfoundland, his role on the team was anything but assured.
Then came the seemingly head-scratching move to scratch the Mississauga native for the Maple Leafs’ home opener against the Ottawa Senators of all teams, the club that drafted Spezza second overall in 2001 and the one he played 11 seasons for before moving on to the Dallas Stars in 2014-15.
It would have been easy to get disgruntled, especially for a player that hand-picked the Maple Leafs in the summer as a team he could potentially win a Stanley Cup with. Rather, Spezza expressed disappointment, but was well aware he would have to win over Babcock in order to get a regular role on the Maple Leafs’ 12-man forward group.
Spezza isn’t a superstar in the league at this point, there’s no denying that. However, in an professional sports era where individual egos are at an all-time high, a stoic Spezza put his head down, got to work and showed to himself, his team, and most importantly, his head coach, that he was willing to accept a brand-new role and would even excel in doing so.
Thanks to his play and the play of his linemates in Gauthier and Nic Petan, Spezza made a second consecutive appearance in the Maple Leafs’ lineup Thursday night against the Lightning. A look at the early-season numbers between the two versions of the fourth line tells us that Spezza’s group has been the better of the two – by far. It’s the right move to keep this unit in the lineup right now as wins net you the same two points in October as they do in March.
I’m not about to call him a regular at this point given what has transpired since the start of training camp, but for now, it’s becoming more and more clear that Spezza has worked his way back into the good books of his head coach.