Jason Spezza believes rocky season will benefit young Maple Leafs

Jason Spezza believes rocky season will benefit young Maple Leafs

Jason Spezza believes rocky season will benefit young Maple Leafs

Jason Spezza believes the Maple Leafs’ turbulent first 70 games of 2019-20 will pay dividends down the road.

And the veteran Toronto centre wants to be part of whatever’s to come.

“We certainly didn’t cruise through the regular season,” Spezza said on a conference call Tuesday. “We had plenty of ups and downs and sideways and different things happen.

“I really think it’s to the benefit of our group. We have a much more mature locker room at this point in time than we did at the start of the season.”

That start saw the Leafs — who once again opened training camp with Stanley Cup aspirations — sputter out of the gate, and Spezza found himself consistently out of the lineup as a healthy scratch under head coach Mike Babcock.

But the 36-year-old former No. 2 pick refused let that disappointment get him down after signing for the league minimum with the team he cheered for as a kid.

“Hockey’s a game where there’s injuries, there’s changes, things happen and your role can shift in a day,” Spezza said. “It was just coming to the rink and figuring out what I had to work on that day. If it was a gameday that I was playing, then get ready for the game. And if it was the day that I wasn’t, then figure out what I can do to stay sharp or to improve how I felt on the ice.

“I didn’t really want to feel sorry for myself or think about that. I was trying to stay in the fight and give myself an opportunity to play well when I did get in.”

Spezza truly got that chance after Babcock, who clearly didn’t have confidence in the former No. 1 centre’s defensive acumen in the bottom-6 forward group, was fired in November with the Leafs floundering.

In walked Sheldon Keefe with new ideas and new tactics, ones more suited to Spezza’s game.

“My role became a little more defined,” he said. ”I was able to focus on just playing and being a positive influence every night, and less so about being in the lineup. That helped me understand what my role was and what was expected of me. I got more and more comfortable with the systems and just my place in the team and knowing that different nights I was going to move around the lineup.

“It was fun, it was a great challenge, just getting myself prepared every night and being a part of an exciting team.”

Spezza, who wants to continue playing and hopes to do so with the Leafs whenever hockey resumes, has nine goals and 16 assists in 58 games this season, just two points shy of his output in 76 contests with the Dallas Stars in 2018-19.

With time to reflect during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced a pause to the 2019-20 schedule — it’s anyone’s guess when or if this season can be salvaged — the Toronto native said he saw growth in the Leafs’ youth-infused, talent-rich core featuring Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

There were statement wins and embarrassing losses, but Spezza believes the team that was in a playoff spot when the NHL suspended operations will be better off as a result.

“There’s a lot more ownership of what’s going on in the room,” he said. ”Our young stars were able to have conversations with each other (and) with other guys on the team that maybe they weren’t comfortable having early on in the season. As much as it sucks to go through this as a team and have to struggle and answer questions and build and get yourself out of losing streaks, I think in the long run it’s something that we needed.

“Now to have a chance to have a break and look back on things, it will only help us pinpoint what we can do differently and move forward.”

Spezza — who has 341 goals and 940 points in 1,123 regular-season games with the Ottawa Senators, Stars and Leafs — didn’t know either Marner or Matthews prior to signing with Toronto, but came away impressed on a number of levels.

He described Marner as an “Energizer Bunny” around the rink, while Matthews’ attention to detail and drive reminded him of himself as a young star trying to navigate the league.

“Those are exciting guys to have in the locker room,” Spezza said. ”There’s really no limit to what we can be as a team when you have high-end guys like that.”

Set to turn 37 in June and a father of four daughters, Spezza had made nearly US$90 million in his career before this season after getting drafted by Ottawa in 2001.

He got close to winning the Stanley Cup with the Senators in 2007, and his passion for hockey still hasn’t flickered 13 years later.

“My love for the game has probably allowed me to play as long as I have,” he said. ”Hockey’s not work to me. As you go through different stages in your career, there’s different challenges.

“I’m in it for as long as I can be so I can win a Stanley Cup. It’s something that I dreamt of as a kid. I would love nothing more than to do here in Toronto… it would be pretty special.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2020.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Thursday that the province was ready to move forward with Phase 2A and B in the coming weeks. (Photo by Paul Taillon/Office of the Premier)
COVID restrictions for retail, sports and performers further eased

Occupancy in stores and malls boosted to 25 per cent from 15 per cent

Advocate file image
Red Deer COVID cases continue to decline

249 cases in Red Deer, down from 565 peak on Feb. 22

Cilantro and Chive Owner Rieley Kay (centre) and Guest Chef City Councillor Cara Hoekstra (right) hand over a donation of more than $1,000 to he Lacombe and District Historical Society, care of Executive Director Melissa Blunden at the Michener House Museum and Archives. (Photo Submitted)
Over $1,000 donated to Lacombe and District Historical Society

The donation came from the proceeds from the February Burger of the Month at Cilantro and Chive

File photo
Gov’t of Alberta identifies estimated 300 new COVID-19 cases Sunday

Online COVID-19 dashboard unavailable as upgrades being completed

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

A SAGA member (left) poses as Jessi Hanks (right) with Castle Restaurant puts up a safe space sticker to display on the restaurant’s front door. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
SAGA Wetaskiwin works with local businesses to display they are a safe space

The safe space stickers show that its a safe and inclusive space.

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during their appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Alberta Appeal Court orders 3rd trial for parents in toddler’s meningitis death

Stephans were accused of not seeking medical attention sooner for Ezekiel, who had meningitis when he died

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Vaccine hesitancy decreases in B.C. as mass immunizations set to begin: poll

Two-thirds of British Columbians, and Canadians, would get the vaccine as soon as possible

A woman walks through Toronto’s financial district on Monday, July 30, 2018. A new poll suggests most Canadians believe there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in this country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Canadians, especially women, say gender equality not achieved in Canada: Poll

Poll results themselves underscore the challenge, with more men believing equality had been achieved

This image provided by Harpo Productions shows Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, left, in conversation with Oprah Winfrey. (Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via AP)
Race, title and anguish: Meghan and Harry explain royal rift

Meghan said she struggled with concerns within the royal family about her son’s skin colour

Kiara Robillard is seen in an undated handout photo. When the pandemic began, Robillard had to rush back home to Alberta from California, where she had been living for five years, after she was struck by a truck that broke her spine in two places. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Kiara Robillard, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘It kind of clicks:’ Text4Hope program helps with depression, anxiety during pandemic

Participants receive one text message every morning for three months

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

Most Read