BUFFALO – Two centres, one line.
Until further notice, Jason Spezza and Frederik Gauthier will be playing the same position on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fourth unit.
It’ll be up to them to figure out whose turn it is to man the wing or run middle ice.
Here’s the plan: Spezza, the righty, will take draws on his strong side. Gauthier, the lefty, will do the same on his.
First man in the zone plays down low, and the other is responsible for the flank.
Both will see time on the penalty kill to help win critical D-zone draws — a glaring weakness of last year’s edition of the Maple Leafs that was exposed by the Boston Bruins at playoff time. And the one with 915 NHL points could see shifts on the second power-play unit.
While this deployment has certainly become a training-camp talking point — largely due to coach Mike Babcock’s steady praise of the younger one and subtle challenging of the vet — Spezza, whose NHL career is old enough to drive, says the situation isn’t especially unique.
Analytics and the increased frequency of maximizing strong-side draws have just shed a brighter light on the tactic.
"I’ve kinda played that way my whole career," Spezza explained Saturday, before the Leafs lost 5-3 to the Sabres in pre-season action. "In Ottawa, I played with [Milan] Michalek for a long time. We just didn’t talk about it. He played down low a lot for certain times. In Dallas last year in [the] playoffs, I played with Justin Dowling — we did it the exact same way. I think it’s a pretty common thing that goes on. Through my best years with Alfie [winger Daniel Alfredsson], he played low a lot.
"It’s really a matter of getting up to speed with the guy you’re doing it with, because there’s little switches throughout the game you want to work on. Freddie seems to have great hockey sense. The quicker we get on the same page, the faster we’ll look as a line."
Make no mistake: While there is still a battle being waged for the fifth, sixth and seventh defenceman spots, Trevor Moore–Frederik Gauthier/Jason Spezza is expected to be the Leafs’ opening-night fourth line.
Babcock made a point of praising the trio again Saturday night, and Moore scored a pretty little shorthanded goal after defenceman Jake Muzzin buried Sabres winger Victor Olofsson into the visitors’ bench.
What did you see on this play, Jake Muzzin?
“I saw a lot of him in the bench.” https://t.co/dgBu4btPWk
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) September 22, 2019
The coach’s questioning of Spezza’s interest in being a role player has vanished as quickly as it appeared. On Saturday, Gauthier took 13 draws. Spezza took 15.
"We have him and Goat both playing centre on that one line. I’m going to give them lots of D-zone starts," Babcock said. "He’s different than other guys here, in my opinion, because I’m going to have a conversation with him every day to see how he’s doing. I think he’s earned that just because of the kind of person, the kind of player he is. We’ll just keep talking."
Spezza reminds that he’s played plenty of wing over the years and always assumed that role when he made a national team. Looking at the Leafs’ 1-3 exhibition record, Spezza is quick to point out that there’s a learning curve for any player adapting to new coaches and how they want their breakouts and forechecks to unfold.
"We have to get up to speed here quickly, so we don’t slow ourselves down by thinking too much. That’s the challenge of a short training camp," said Spezza, who’s both complementary and complimentary to his fellow 4C.
"[Gauthier] is a big, strong guy. He hangs onto pucks well down low. I think he has pretty good hockey sense and knows his way around the rink pretty well."
Unlike Spezza, the 6-foot-5 Gauthier’s experience at wing is essentially zilch, unless you count the occasional shift in youth hockey, but he figures it’s "something you pick up as you go."
Back in the early days of Babcock’s Toronto tenure, the coach publicly pleaded for more centremen. He envied Tampa for having the luxury of putting, say, a Steven Stamkos on the wing. It’s easier to nudge a centre to the wall than burden a winger with the responsibility of middle ice. So, as problems go, this is a good one.
The ultimate goal would be to roll out a double face-off threat on each line. Auston Matthews (lefty) and William Nylander (righty) have already enjoyed success splitting those duties in the top-six.
"In Ottawa we did it because I was good, [Antoine] Vermette was good, Mike Fisher was good," Spezza said. "Now wingers are being taught to take draws so they’re always on their backhand side. That’s maybe a newer trend."
So, on Saturday morning, Spezza took fellow righty Mitch Marner aside for a face-off tutorial. Last season, Marner took a grand total of 11 draws; he’s 71-72 over his three-year career.
But if he’s going to play alongside a lefty centreman like John Tavares for, oh, say, the next six winters, it would serve Marner well to add strong-side face-offs to his arsenal.
What better challenge than taking reps with the most successful face-off man in 2018-19, when Spezza topped the class at 58.2 per cent.
"He was impressed with my one win, but that’s the only one I got on him," Marner said. "I want to be more useful in D-zone and O-zone taking draws. I’m trying to learn, and that’s a guy you can definitely learn from. His percentage over the years talks for itself.
"I’ve talked to [Spezza] a lot. He kinda reminds me a little bit of Patty [Marleau] as that veteran presence, that guy who’s been around for a while and knows how hard it is to win. That’s something he’s preaching to all of us: Come in every day and make sure you’re ready to work."
Even if you have the same job description as one of the other guys on your own line.