The Toronto Maple Leafs are used to having every single detail scrutinized, from lineups to the ins and outs of practice. It’s part of life.
When the Maple Leafs picked up 36-year-old Jason Spezza on July 1, there were questions. Understandably so. And when head coach Mike Babcock scratched Spezza for the season opener against his former Ottawa Senators, there were more questions.
The answer, at the time, was that Spezza wasn’t quite the type of player Babcock wanted him to be. Not just yet. The forward was to develop more time on the penalty kill, get a little more used to that utility role.
Then came Friday night. Spezza was in the lineup against the Columbus Blue Jackets, playing about 10 minutes in his first game of the season. Toronto took the win in convincing fashion, in large part thanks to two goals from Mitch Marner, and Spezza did his job.
But where, exactly, does the Toronto native fit?
For the vast majority of his career, Spezza got his points. He pulled off at least 50 points in all but four seasons and there are qualifiers for the 2012-2013 season (a herniated disc and back surgery limited him to just five games for the Senators) and his debut in 2002-2003.
Apart from those two seasons, Spezza’s been consistent. But over the last two seasons, his numbers have taken a dive. That’s to be expected, but it contextualizes what the Maple Leafs expect.
In other words, the Jason Spezza picked up on July 1 was not the 50-point Jason Spezza but the 26-and-27-point Jason Spezza from the last couple years in Dallas.
The transition from a point-getter to a role-player was put in motion before Spezza arrived in Toronto and before he became the business of Babcock. That’s what has him with Nic Petan and Frederik Gauthier on the fourth line and that’s what will determine his future going forward. For all intents and purposes, Spezza is still making the case for a roster spot.
If some in the fanbase are slow to catch on, the forward isn’t.
“You judge your nights differently now,” said Spezza. “We’re trying to be a good positive influence on the game. We’re trying to make sure that we’re playing down there [in the offensive zone]. We’re getting D-zone assignments and making sure we get out quick. Trying to be good on both ends of the special teams.”
Make no mistake about it, Spezza isn’t seeing the ice time. His 10:36 from Friday was low by his standards, but he played well and controlled the puck and drew a critical penalty against Columbus’ David Savard.
He’s also not seeing the money, earning $700,000 for one year – for one chance, presumably, at lifting the Stanley Cup.
Photo credit: Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press