It finally happened. Well, probably a decade later than anybody would have wished, but Jason Spezza is a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. For now, at least.
After a couple of ugly campaigns with the Dallas Stars, Spezza inked a one-year, $700k deal to join the Leafs. The fit seemed perfect, as Toronto not only needed a fourth-line centre, but also savvy veterans to replace the likes of Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey. But, based on what Mike Babcock has been saying over the past few days, Spezza’s role on the roster doesn’t seem to be guaranteed.
After the Leafs’ first pre-season game against the Senators in Newfoundland the other day, Babcock had this to say about Spezza…
Babcock on Spezza: "There's a role here for him, but he's got to be able to do it so we'll see over exhibition whether he likes it"
Jason: "Basically, it comes down to, do you want to keep playing or do you want to hold on to the old days & I want to keep playing"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) September 17, 2019
Then, this morning, this came out…
Jason Spezza, notably, on the wing at Leafs practice today. Teamed up with Frederik Gauthier and Trevor Moore.
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) September 20, 2019
Spezza is now being used as a fourth-line winger rather than in his expected position as the fourth centre.
Mike Babcock, being a traditional coach, likes the idea of having a standard, old-school fourth-line that can win faceoffs, play effectively in the defensive zone, and be used in a checking role. With that in mind, it would seem Frederik Gauthier would be Babcock’s ideal fourth-line centre. Though The Goat brings virtually zero offence, he can win draws, which is probably higher on Babcock’s priority list than a centre like Spezza who can generate some offence.
The playing Spezza on the wing thing isn’t really that big of a deal, as he played wing in Dallas, too. It’s the post-game comments about Spezza’s interest in playing that ring loudly. Spezza himself outright said that he wants to keep playing. I mean, if he didn’t want to keep playing, he probably wouldn’t have taken a discount to stay in Toronto.
Beyond that, these comments are shocking given Babcock’s history of favouring veterans. Just last year, Babcock played Marleau way more than he probably should have. Despite being largely ineffective in the playoffs against Boston, Marleau infamously saw as much ice time as Auston Matthews in Game 7 of the first round.
So for a coach who generally loves veterans, Babcock’s questioning of Spezza’s interest in playing is very ominous.