As we’ve gone through the countdown of the top Leafs outside the NHL, it’s become abundantly clear that the Leafs have no shortage of secondary offensive talent that can fit into their lineup next season. This is probably a good thing as if we are going to see summer playoff hockey followed by an immediate start of a season, followed by another possible pause, followed by hockey that will likely continue into late next summer, depth will be good. Spezza is some of that depth and if his salary remains controlled that would be a huge advantage for the Leafs.
The positives to bringing Spezza back are fairly obvious…
A) Offense is good, and Spezza provides that with bottom six players. Kapanen is the most skilled player that Spezza played with this year, and to an overwhelming amount compared the rest of the team, seeing 235 minutes with him and 124 minutes with his second most frequent linemate, Freddie Gauthier. Engvall, Petan, Clifford, Timashov, Moore, and Mikheyev were Spezza’s other linemates with over 50 minutes played together last season, and when you consider Spezza was playing 10 minutes a night without offensive juggernauts, his 25 points in 58 games seem more impressive.
B) Veteran Presences matter to some extent, and the Leafs can benefit from a player who wants to win a cup before he retires and has a goal of hitting 1000 points. Throw in the fact that Spezza wants to play in his hometown and is comfortable being a voice to the media, he helps take a lot of pressure off the Leafs core.
C) Versatility is another advantage. The fact that Spezza can move over to center as needed, either in game or if injuries force him to the middle for a handful of games, Spezza takes a lot of pressure off the Leafs by being able to play some center at this point of his career. Having Spezza as a potential linemate for Engvall that the Leafs would like to develop as a center can be an advantage as well. Platooning Spezza as a center at home and Gauthier as a center on the road or based on who they are facing is also an option given how the Leafs choose to proceed with the 4C position.
D) Depth. More depth is good.
Now, as for the road blocks to bringing Spezza back are also fairly obvious, and need to be considered…
A) Is having Spezza worth keeping players like Barabanov, Korshkov, and possibly Robertson out of the lineup? Is it possible that Agostino, Kossila, or Petan might be able to accomplish more at this point in their careers than what Spezza can do in his? Does Kyle Clifford bring something more important to the Leafs than Spezza, and should retaining him be a priority over Spezza? There’s no reason to move on from Spezza before finding out all of this in training camp, but there is the added challenge of Spezza not being a player that wants to head to the AHL. If he has been outplayed and doesn’t deserve the roster spot, are the Leafs going to be obligated to accommodate him either out of respect, or out a potential no movement clause. There’s also the issue that Spezza’s contract, as small as it may be, will hit the Leafs no matter what because he’s over 35.
B) If Spezza isn’t interested in a one year, league minimum deal, what then? Arguably Spezza is providing the Leafs with scoring, and leadership that dictate he should earn more, but the team doesn’t have a lot of leeway when it comes to cap space, and it’s questionable that if Spezza wants more than one year at a time or even a $1M/yr cap hit that he is not worth holding other players back for.
C) Defense. Spezza is not a player you want on the ice when the opposition is attacking, and while Spezza has been great at driving offense in the sheltered role, his defensive abilities aren’t typically what you’d see in a bottom six forward. I’d personally argue that Spezza is perfectly fine in his role, but to not carry a fourth liner who brings physical play or penalty killing might be an issue. On many teams Spezza could sneak his way into a second power play unit role, but that’s not the case in Toronto.
The Reality of the situation
Andreas Johnsson, Alexander Kerfoot, and Kasperi Kapanen are the elephants in the room. They are all very good players that could play in the top six, but there is really only one spot open for the three of them and they are probably too expensive to keep in the bottom six when the Leafs will have other areas they want to address. If the Leafs are thinning out their offensive depth, a cheap option like Spezza that can play in sheltered scoring situations and possibly inherit a role on the second power play unit starts pointing to keeping Jason around for another season or possibly two.
Spezza has prove himself to be a fan favourite, seems to have the respect of his peers in the locker room, and has largely accepted the reduced role that comes with his age and declining abilities. He wants to be in Toronto and play here for as long as he can. There doesn’t really seem to be a reason to move on from that, unless it’s a contract thing.