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What We Learned: Jason Spezza still has game

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s year-(so far)-in-review series in which we talk about something we learned about each player on the team this year. Today, we have whether or not to bring back Jason Spezza for another victory lap. 

Jason Spezza wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform is something fans gushed out during the 2000s.

When the day finally came for Spezza to down the blue and white of his hometown club in 2019, it ended up being fairly anticlimactic. Spezza played 10:36 in his Leafs debut, a random, forgettable road game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

A couple of days before, Spezza had watched the Leafs’ home opener from the press box. Despite having plenty of friends and family in the stands to witness his debut, Mike Babcock opted to keep the veteran out of the lineup. Spezza, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a fan of the decision.

“It’s more disappointing that it’s the opener,” Spezza said. “You want to be part of these games and it gives you things to get excited about. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed but I’m also a professional and I’ve got to get ready to go.

It really wasn’t much of a secret that Babcock wasn’t thrilled about the idea of having Spezza in his bottom-six. Babcock is an old-school coach who likes operating with a traditional top- and bottom-six, with skilled guys who score at the top and physical guys who shut down the other team at the bottom. Using Spezza in a bottom-six role is more of a new-age style of thinking, in which all four of your lines are oriented to produce offensively.

Spezza spent the first month-and-a-half of the season bouncing in and out of the lineup in a four-player rotation on the fourth line. He was scratched from the lineup in 10 of the team’s first 23 games. And then Babcock got fired.

When Sheldon Keefe took over behind the bench, Spezza started to take on a larger, more consistent role on the team. He also started to produce more offensively. Under Keefe, Spezza scored six goals and 18 points in 45 games. He also posted a solid 49.69 expected goals-for percentage, though that number looks a lot better when he’s playing higher in the lineup with Kasperi Kapanen rather than lower alongside Kyle Clifford and Frederik Gauthier.

All told, Spezza’s 25 points in 58 games is more than you can ask for when it comes to a player getting paid a league-minimum salary. But beyond his solid production, Spezza brings an element of veteran leadership to Toronto’s dressing room that makes him a no-brainer to bring back next season.

Earlier in the season, Spezza’s Leafs teammates, most of whom were just kids when he was a star with the Ottawa Senators in the mid-2000s, raved about getting the chance to play with him.

“Playing with, hopefully, a future Hall of Famer, it’s pretty special,” Kasperi Kapanen told The Athletic. “We had Patty Marleau here a while ago and now we have Spezz, it’s awesome.”

“We go to dinner and stuff all the time on the road,” William Nylander said. “He’s got some good stories and it’s always a great time. And you know how good of a hockey player he is. He teaches us a lot of stuff, just stuff to keep in mind when we’re playing.”

On Tuesday, Spezza told reporters on a conference call that he would love to continue playing and that there’s no place he would rather be than at home in Toronto. It’s hard to imagine you’ll get better bang for your buck at $700,000 against the salary cap than Jason Spezza at this point. He brings a lot to the table that the team needs.