Now that the 2019-20 season is officially over for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s time for rumor mongers to go crazy. There will naturally be changes in the Maple Leafs lineup and on the team’s roster. What might these changes be?
There are at least two areas of swirling rumors. First, most of the talk is centered on big names and star players like Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Frederik Andersen. Should Marner be traded? Does Nylander’s contract and potential make him the easiest of the Big Four (Marner, Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares) to trade? Although Andersen was mostly brilliant during the Columbus Blue Jackets best-of-five series the team lost, what about his less-than-great Game 5 and his soon expiring contract?
The second rumor conversation centers on the impact of the salary cap. Now that we know the cap will be flat, how does that impact the team moving forward? Who must leave so that the team can sign that stud defenseman most hockey commentators and fans believe is needed to put it over the top?
Within this conversation about salary cap space, conversations also emerge about depth and role players who the team must necessarily employ because so much salary-cap space is designated to the four players noted above – Marner, Nylander, Matthews, and Tavares.
In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I want to focus on decisions the team must make when it comes to their futures of some of depth players within the organization. Specifically, I want to focus on Jason Spezza.
Item One: Should the Maple Leafs Re-sign Jason Spezza?
Jason Spezza has been a star in the NHL for many seasons. But he’s never won the Stanley Cup and he desperately wants to. In addition, he’s from Toronto and dreamed of playing with the Maple Leafs when he was younger. Prior to the 2019-20 season, general manager Kyle Dubas signed Spezza to a league-minimum contract.
Spezza’s Season with the Maple Leafs
Spezza’s season was sometimes bumpy – especially under the reign of head coach Mike Babcock. However, Spezza’s role changed after Babcock was fired and Sheldon Keefe took over in November. He ended up scoring nine goals and 25 points in 58 games.
An article yesterday on Maple Leafs Hot Stove reported that the team loved Spezza and thought he went “above and beyond” team expectations. He was “an incredibly positive influence” and, with “20/20 hindsight,” the article noted that the Babcock era was over on opening night when he made Spezza watch from the press box instead of allowing him to start game one of the season against his old club, the Ottawa Senators.
That article also noted the professionalism of Spezza, who played opening night perfectly and who didn’t let problems fester. The point is that the Maple Leafs really liked and appreciated what Spezza brought and how he brought it.
Spezza’s Role with the Maple Leafs
Why not? Spezza played a needed and important role with the Maple Leafs team providing leadership and experience. In fact, there’s a great Sportsnet video in late July of Spezza working with Nick Robertson alone in the rink on his one-timers. Obviously, the Maple Leafs exited the postseason way too early, but that wasn’t Spezza’s fault. In fact, he did everything he could – including fisticuffs. The team needs more leadership, not less; and Spezza provides it.
Spezza wants to return and has made that case to the Maple Leafs. When speaking to Luke Fox of Sportsnet about his future, Spezza admitted “the fire still burns” and he hopes to be back in Toronto next season. He added that he knows he’s “not the player I once was, but I do feel like I can help quite a bit, and the fire still burns and I really hope to be back here next year.”
Spezza Would Be Cost-Effective Re-Signing
Obviously. Spezza’s past his prime and can’t make Toronto a successful playoff team by himself. However, because Dubas is living in the shadows of a tight salary cap, he needs cost-effective players to fill out the team’s roster. He’d have to look long and hard to find a better fit than Spezza.
Spezza can still produce and a number of teams would sign him if the Maple Leafs choose not to. But Spezza wants to stay home in Toronto. Certainly, the Maple Leafs need more grit in the bottom-six of their lineup, so extending Spezza isn’t a given. Despite his willingness to do what’s needed, he’s not Kyle Clifford.
Still, from my perspective. Re-signing a 16-year NHL veteran who brings so much to the ice seems like an easy decision.
Item Two: If Joe Thornton Were Available, What About Jason Spezza?
Way back in February, in his 31 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman put forth the rumor that the Maple Leafs were interested in San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton. In a Sportsnet podcast, Friedman was asked again whether the Maple Leafs had a chance at signing Joe Thornton for the coming season.
That question, as noted, is a reprisal of a “thought” Friedman put forth several months ago. He believes the Maple Leafs would do well to employ NHL veterans like Thornton (he also mentioned Ron Hainsey in his comments) because these players just don’t care what anyone thinks anymore.
However, Friedman noted that he doesn’t think it’s possible to have both Spezza and Thornton on the team at the same time. But, why not? Come on Elliotte, think creatively.
Here’s a radical thought – and it’s just my own. Why can’t the Maple Leafs use the attraction of the playing in Toronto to pull together what I’ll call “The Age Line.” It would be a fourth line of veterans who’d relish the idea of playing one more time for the Cup and using their veteran leadership to impact a young team.
Let me bring Patrick Marleau again to this conversation after the Pittsburgh Penguins were surprisingly ousted from the postseason by the Montreal Canadiens. We know how much Spezza wants to win the Stanley Cup, but Marleau’s currently the NHL player who’s played the most NHL games (both regular season and playoffs) without winning the Stanley Cup. He left his California home for another chance with the Penguins.
We know how much Marleau was loved by youngsters Matthews and Marner. Can you imagine the impact on the Matthews and Marner if Marleau were brought back?
An “Age Line” of 40-year-old Marleau on the left wing – 41-year-old Thornton at center – and 37-year-old Spezza on the right wing. Wouldn’t that be a blast? And, what experience. But can anyone even imagine a line that averaged almost 40 years of age? Zdeno Chara (still going strong at 43 years old) probably can.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
Obviously, Dubas has many decisions to make. Some, as critics suggest, are about core players and stud defensemen. Others have to do with team depth. All have to do with a flat salary cap.
One last question: Can there be too much team leadership?