It’s nearly impossible to bring up Jason Spezza this season without mentioning Mike Babcock. The two are linked intrinsically — though neither man would likely admit it.
Alas, you cannot choose your rivals. As the year rolls on and the games flip by, each appearance from the former only seems to validate the failures of the latter.
A little under four months ago Spezza’s name was discussed solely in hushed tones — not in relation to the tremendous value he was providing but whether or not he would accept a demotion to the AHL.
It was a valid conversation to have, too.
Spezza did not open the 2019-20 season as an NHL regular. Far from it, in fact. Prior to Babcock’s dismissal the 36-year-old watched 10 of the Maple Leafs’ first 23 games as a healthy scratch, receiving only sparse usage when he managed to slot into the lineup and routinely finding himself below Nick Shore on the internal food chain.
Spezza’s diminished role under Babcockian Rule came as no surprise, either. The writing graced the wall from the opening of training camp, crescendoing unexpectedly when Babcock called Spezza’s “interest level” into question following the veteran pivot’s impressive preseason debut.
With his roster spot in jeopardy and the Leafs flailing around him, Spezza’s future in Toronto, and even at hockey’s highest level seemed bleak.
Then, Mike Babcock was fired.
Fast forward to present day and Spezza’s name elicits jubilation in lieu of whispers. He’s become a fan favourite for his affable demeanour and ageless production, which currently pegs him for a 41-point finish when adjusted over 82 games.
Spezza won’t reach those 82 games, though. His former coach made sure of it.
That’s all in the past now. Ancient history. Midway through what threatened to be a disappointing swan song, Spezza has rewritten his own narrative entirely.
Normally, a fluff piece along these lines would wax poetic about Spezza’s play in the post-Babcock Era. The author of such a column would describe it as that of a man free of burden, someone rediscovering his passion for the sport after months of unjust turbulence.
But doing so here would not be truthful.
In reality, Spezza has played the same brand of hockey this season regardless of who stands behind the Maple Leafs’ bench. He produced under Babcock — Spezza put up seven points in 13 games with his former coach, even capping Babcock’s final outing with a two-point night — and, wouldn’t you know it, has continued that production under Sheldon Keefe.
He didn’t have to, though. Under normal circumstances, a 17-year NHL veteran signing in his hometown on a sweetheart deal would be treated with something resembling respect. But Babcock was not normal. When mid-November rolled around, no one would’ve blamed Spezza if that “love of the game” burned less-than-bright.
Even amidst the mind games, cutting remarks and needless scratches, he stayed as steady as ever. Spezza never complained; never leaked a hint of frustration to the media; never publicly bemoaned his role as a mentor. On a young team with a growing list of capable players turned cap casualties, that example matters.
From someone of Spezza’s stature, it matters even more.
Imagine for a moment you’re Nic Petan. The confusion you’ve dealt with since arriving in Toronto has been staggering: instantly shunted by your head coach after being traded mid-season, you’re then told you factor into the team’s long-term plans via a two-year extension only to find yourself right back on the sidelines all over again.
At 24 years old, the clock is ticking. Your best years are waning. The press box quickly becomes your tomb.
Only, not when you’re seated next to Jason Spezza. He’s not complaining. What right do you have? You’re Nic Petan, for crying out loud. Sure, things aren’t looking too well at the moment, but you’re still a 24-year-old with some skill to give perched on the precipice of your prime. Spezza’s pushing 40.
Who do you think general managers will view as the better reclamation bet? Buck up.
If Patrick Marleau was the Maple Leafs’ surrogate father throughout his time in Toronto, Spezza is more of a fun uncle. He wears zany three-piece suits, has a laugh that turns heads, and always seems up for an adventure even when life is getting him down.
Not to mention, if Spezza wears out his welcome, no problem. Emancipating from your father costs you a first-round pick; telling your uncle to go home in July is free. At this point you should probably ask if he even wants to stay.
Nearing the end of a season predicated upon fluctuating emotions and organizational change, Spezza’s presence is purely positive — no strings attached. Each of his points can be celebrated without debates over cap value; every goal a licence to fawn over his still-lethal shot.
And it truly is lethal, my friends. Just look at this. My god.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 8, 2020
Talking about Jason Spezza: the Toronto Maple Leaf is fun. Unfiltered, untethered, unabashed fun. Frankly, isn’t that the whole point of this thing?
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