Leafs’ Jason Spezza opens up about fresh start under Sheldon Keefe

Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza says he was frustrated sitting out the bulk of games to start the season, and feels rejuvenated since playing under new head coach Sheldon Keefe.

CALGARY – Jason Spezza is too optimistic to say it, but the Toronto Maple Leafs coaching change might well have extended his hockey career.

Beginning with the home opener against his alma mater Ottawa Senators, the most senior member of the fourth-youngest roster in the NHL had difficulty finding a niche in Mike Babcock’s lineup. Under the previous regime, the 36-year-old got healthy-scratched 10 times, a total that surely would’ve climbed had a rash of forward injuries not befallen the club early.

Since Sheldon Keefe began submitting the lineup card, however, Spezza has drawn in nine of 10 games, his only scratch being a veteran maintenance night off during the Buffalo back-to-back.

He’s quietly put up seven points in his past nine games and — finally, joyfully — become a fixture of the roster he took the league minimum to join.

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Auston Matthews smiles at the friendly, razzy nickname the Leafs’ twenty-somethings have given the father of four daughters: "Vintage."

"First off, he’s just he’s been a great voice in the locker room and on the bench. You know, we don’t have a lot of guys that are overly vocal on the bench and talk a lot," Keefe explains. "He’s got a great rapport with the referees and linesmen. Those things make a difference for a young team like ours.

"And then on the ice, he’s the guy that just shows his ability to make a play, shows an ability to produce for us on that second power-play unit. If he gets a chance at even-strength, he has the ability to score on it too."

Ahead of Thursday’s game versus the Calgary Flames, Vintage held court with a handful of scribes crowding his stall and thoughtfully spoke about life under Babcock, his rejuvenation under Keefe, and what it’s like being the oldest guy in the room.

Here, edited for length and clarity, is Jason Spezza in his own words:

"Coming here, I just wanted a role. I wanted to be a part of the team, and I knew I’d be a guy who can move up and down the lineup, help out and fill holes with injuries. I want a chance to win. That’s why I came here.

"Opening night was definitely a little different, but I came here to try to win. And if you want to have a good locker room, when things don’t go your way, you have to keep your head above water. You have to keep everybody else positive.

"If you ask my wife how I felt about it, she gets the truth [chuckles]. If you ask my teammates, you try to make it seem as little as possible. That’s the reality of the situation, and that’s why I’m obligated to do that — because I want to be in a positive dressing room.

"I didn’t worry. I knew that there was talk and possibility [of getting waived due to salary-cap restrictions], but I didn’t worry because it doesn’t do you any good. I just kind of came to work, and I tried to stay sharp because I knew things change in a hurry.

"Even with the last couple games with Babs here, I was forced to play more because we had injuries — and if I wasn’t ready, then who knows where that would have put me?

"For so long I’ve talked to teammates over the years that have been in similar situations to me, where you urge them to keep going. And now I had a chance to kind of do it myself, and I benefited from it. Because when I come back in the lineup, I feel sharp.

"[Staying optimistic] is not an act for me. I love coming to the rink. I love practising every day. I love just being around the guys, and that’s something I don’t take for granted. I get to come here every day and play and practise, and it’s fun. I want to spread that to the other guys.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jason Spezza (19) returns to the bench after scoring during the second period against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

"There’s lots of guys in my situation. We’ve got five, six guys that are sharing three jobs pretty much, so if those guys see me being positive, it encourages them to be positive, and that makes our room better. It’s all part of a bigger plan.

"If you see a guy sagging a little bit, I take it upon myself to talk to a guy. Some guys come to you with questions — it’s more casual than formal. Sometimes you see a guy sagging with confidence, or you see a guy that’s not happy with how things are going. And that’s my job, to recognize that and to help them.

"I had great mentors. Daniel Alfredsson — we had a great relationship early in my career. Bryan Smolinski was the guy that gave me a kick in the ass when I needed it, if I was sulking as a young guy. Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, just guys that I could always trust that they were reading the pulse of the room. They were really helpful to me, and I think that’s why I had a good career.

"Somebody told me I’m like the 12th or 13th oldest guy in the league, and that seems weird. I don’t feel that old.

"I told the guys here: I think I was the youngest guy on our team in Ottawa for three years. You just didn’t bring in new players. Like, it was hard to make it. I was second overall [in the 2001 draft], and it was hard for me to make the team.

"You have to adapt when you’re an older guy. The things I used as goals are no longer goals. Now, I’m playing on the fourth line a lot of nights. I’m just trying to create momentum for the team. [Scoring] a goal at the end of the shift isn’t the goal all the time. That’s not really my job right now, and that’s a switch that I’m learning to flip.

"Our team as a whole is playing with more pace and a little more enthusiasm. I think we’re growing our game to what Sheldon wants us to play.

"He wants us to play tenacious without the puck so we can get it back quick. We’re trying to play defence really fast. We’re trying to protect the middle of the ice. And when we have the puck, we’re trying to not give it up.

"There’s maybe more communication with the coach now, but I don’t know if it’s worth comparing before and after.

"Now I’m in the lineup every night. And then I wasn’t. So, yeah, I have a bigger impact in the room and everywhere just because I’m playing. And then you get to see things. You get to see how the room’s reacting, and that’s where you really can use your experience. When you’re out of the lineup, you’re just trying to stay out of the way and stay upbeat and trying to keep yourself sharp.

"You’re always learning. The competitor in you wants to always be The Guy and go and make a difference, but a lot of nights our job on the fourth line is to create positive momentum, kind of control play and then set the other guys up. So, it’s something we’re constantly talking about.

"It’s fun to chip in. The second power-play is something I take a lot of pride in. I’ve been trusted with being on that unit all the time and helping that unit get in sync, so that’s really important for me, to have that second power-play unit going well.

"I don’t judge my game on goals and assists anymore. I’ve produced a little bit in the last month, but I don’t think that’s why I played well. You get a little bit of puck luck and it goes in. But my job is to be a good positive fourth-liner.

"I don’t find myself thinking a whole lot out there. Usually when you’re not thinking, you’re playing your best. Thinking slows you down. At times maybe I was thinking about too much early in the season. Now, I feel like it’s more instinctive.

"It was frustrating not being the lineup at the start of the year, but now I’m in the lineup, we have a good team, and we’re trying to build, and it’s fun to play."

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