Maple Leafs Seeing in Spezza What Babcock Never Could

What was former Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock thinking when he seemed to accuse Jason Spezza about not caring last season? Last night, the 37-year-old Spezza went off against the Vancouver Canucks to the tune of three goals – a hat trick. It was the eighth hat trick of Spezza’s career as his Maple Leafs routed the Canucks 7-3.

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On top of that, even at his ripe old age and getting less than 10 minutes of ice time per game this season (he’s only averaging 9:42 minutes a game), Spezza has now scored four goals and four assists in his 10 games. In fact, Spezza’s been on a roll recently with four goals and three assists in his last five games.

Spezza Isn’t the Player He Used to Be, But His Young Teammates Admire Him

I’m not saying that the 37-year-old Spezza is near the player he used to be when he was a dominating center for the Ottawa Senators in his prime. He was, after all, the second-overall draft choice of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.

Still, Spezza can play. Second, he can lead. Third, he’s a positive example of how hockey players should prepare to be good at their professional craft. Finally, he’s an example of a great teammate who will do whatever it takes to help make his team better.

For example, in a tweet from the Maple Leafs’ pre-bubble return-to-play training camp, you can see both Spezza’s desire to work on his skills and his willingness to mentor younger players – in this case teenager Nick Robertson.

By the way, Spezza walks the talk by considering his teammates. Maple Leafs’ fans will recall that, after young Robertson scored his first NHL goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in postseason play, it was Spezza who went to collect the puck so Robertson could keep it in his trophy case. The importance of such things isn’t lost on Spezza.

This Season, No Different: Spezza’s Teammates Value Him

This season, Spezza has clearly endeared himself to young Maple Leafs’ players. You can hear it when Auston Matthews speaks about Spezza’s hat-trick game Thursday night. 

Auston Matthews John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews celebrates with teammate John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

After the game, Matthews assessed the entire situation: ”He (Spezza) means a lot to this team, I think more than anybody knows. That was fun to watch. That was vintage Jason Spezza. He put on a show. He deserves it. He works so hard (my emphasis).

Matthews went on about Spezza, ”At this stage in his career, the dedication that he pours into his own game, into the team … to see a guy like him get rewarded and put on a show like he did, that was pretty incredible.”

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That’s what veteran presence, leadership, being a mentor and teacher – perhaps even being a counsellor, a sounding board, and a solid contributor to the lineup will do for you in terms of respect from your teammates. By the way, it helps when you’re a good guy –  a class act.

Spezza Signs a Bargain-Basement Contract

Flashback to the beginning of the 2019-20 season. Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas had the chance to sign Spezza to a bargain, NHL League Minimum contract to become a member of the Maple Leafs roster. Dubas did just that.

At the time, Spezza’s experience and leadership would help offset the losses of Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey, two players who had played deep into the NHL playoffs. At the time, Dubas noted that Spezza knew he was accepting a reduced role and came into the situation with his eyes wide open.

So that’s just what Spezza did. He started coming to and training at the Maple Leafs’ facility weeks ahead of camp. There he spent time hanging out the “guys,” bonding with some of the younger players on and off the ice.

What would his job be with the team? Spezza was open to filling in on the wing or being part of the second power-play unit. He might even get minutes in a top-six position in case of an injury. In short, Spezza came into camp with attributes that could become potential benefits but without promises or expectations.

So, What Was Babcock Thinking?

Obviously, Babcock wasn’t happy with Spezza’s signing. During the 2019-20 training camp, Babcock said of Spezza, “He’s trying to figure it out if he’s interested, and we’re doing the same.”

Mike Babcock Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Then, with the situation lining up perfectly – sort of like a cheesy movie script – Spezza prepared for the opening night of the 2019-20 season. The first NHL team coming to town would be the Ottawa Senators and Spezza would begin his Maple Leafs’ career by playing his former team.

But in what was announced to be a last-minute decision, Babcock sat Spezza in the press box for that game. What struck me about this “last-minute decision” was that Spezza “brought his wife, kids, and other family members in attendance to see him make his debut with his hometown Leafs.”

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I can’t imagine this event from Spezza’s family perspective. By the way, Spezza married Jennifer Snell in 2009 in Ottawa when he played there. He and Jennifer have four young daughters. Sophia is now 10; Nicola is now eight; Anna is now six; and, Julia is now four. Putting their Dad in the press box when they had come to see him play seems a bit Grinch-like for what was to be a big family celebration.

Spezza never whined publicly about Babcock. He was the ultimate professional in that situation, as he’s proved to be in others. He’s a class act who can, every five seasons or so, score a hat trick to lead his team to a win.

For Spezza, It’s Toronto or Nowhere

This morning, when I had noted that I would be writing about Spezza’s time with the Maple Leafs, my The Hockey Writers’ colleague Mike Carter (who covers the Buffalo Sabres) reminded me that, “Spezza was going to retire if another team picked him up when he was on waivers earlier this season.”

Carter also noted that Spezza’s “modus operandi the past two seasons has been Leafs or bust.” And that Spezza’s “performance lately shows us that’s not just talk.”

Fans can get a sense of how bonded Spezza feels with his Maple Leafs’ teammates. After the game, he noted: ‘I got a bit of a water shower walking in the room, the guys got me good.”

Then Spezza reflected, ”The game’s been good to me. I’m still chasing the Cup. That’s what keeps me driving.”

Spezza added, “Just coming to the rink and being part of a team, I don’t think you ever replicate the bond you have with teammates. There’s ups and downs and trials and tribulations, but you always have each other’s back.”

Spezza’s final comment was ”That’s pretty special stuff. You don’t get that unless you’re playing.”

Spezza’s Interested: He Wants to Win the Cup

What Babcock couldn’t see with his comment “He’s trying to figure it out if he’s interested, and we’re doing the same.” was that Spezza was always interested. As he says, he’s chasing the Cup.

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Perhaps what Babcock missed all along was that Spezza’s committed to doing what he can to win the Stanley Cup and he wants to win it with his home town Toronto.

I’m also thinking the second part of Babcock’s question has been answered as well. The Maple Leafs’ organization has also decided it’s interested in Spezza.