How Maple Leafs can best survive John Tavares injury

leafs-john-tavares-skates-flanked-by-trevor-moore-and-mitch-marner

Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares (91) is flanked by Trevor Moore (42) and Mitchell Marner as he brings the puck forward during second period action against the Minnesota Wild, in Toronto, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)

Listen closely. Can you hear it?

Sure sounds like Jason Spezza’s theme music, doesn’t it?

Anyone within 200 feet of a hockey rink will tell you that you don’t — can’t — replace a player like John Tavares, who has been ruled out of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup for a minimum of two weeks and six games after suffering a broken finger. (At that point, he’ll be re-evaluated by the club’s medical staff.)

When Tavares’s right hand absorbed a Morgan Rielly point blast with five and a half minutes remaining in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss in Washington, he winced, shook his wrist and glided to the bench.

The captain hopped the boards again, however, and sniped a high-slot wrister with that busted digit, giving the Leafs a last-gasp bid to tie the game and increasing his individual point streak to four games.

Tavares not only paced the club in goals last season (47) and leapt to a nice seven-points-in-eight-games start to his second Leafs campaign, he’s the pivot coach Mike Babcock leans on for must-win draws and in tough head-to-head line matches, like Boston’s esteemed Patrice Bergeron unit, which rolls into town Saturday on fire and will be waiting for the Maple Leafs again on Tuesday.

It’s during times like this when consistency of the 29-year-old Tavares, who had been steadily running after two 82-game seasons and dutifully completed Wednesday’s post-game media responsibilities, is no longer taken for granted.

So, no, you don’t replace a $77-million, six-time NHL all-star in his prime.

But you do stock the walls with tools that can patch a problem short-term — and with the 2019-20 Leafs still searching for their first victory over a playoff-positioned opponent, thank goodness the injury is short-term.

In case of emergency, break glass and point Spezza in direction of the blaze.

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"His skill set, his ability to make plays to our talented forwards, his proficiency on face-offs, all of that," general manager Kyle Dubas said of the aging marquee free agent he signed on July 1, for the league minimum.

Spezza has quietly spent the Leafs’ past three games observing in suit from the press box as Babcock heaped praise on his fourth-line battery mate, Nick Shore.

But Shore — a journeyman checker — doesn’t have the hands or versatility of a Spezza, whose ability to play up-and-down the lineup, centre or wing, in event of injury was highlighted as a benefit during all those training camp stories.

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The sense we got wasn’t that Babcock didn’t like Spezza the player. It was that he didn’t necessarily like him to fill a very specific fourth-line role: kill penalties, skate in straight lines, avoid risks, stick to your man, then get the heck off.

But Tavares’s absence opens gaping holes in the playmaking, face-off and power-play departments. Spezza’s history suggests he should be able to chip in.

And if not now, in October, when the stakes are low, then what’s he doing here at all?

Of course, there are other options at the organization’s disposal. This is where a less-stacked organization might crumble and Toronto’s forward depth can shine, as it did when Matthews missed a month recovering from a shoulder injury in 2018-19.

Speedy and responsible, Alexander Kerfoot has shown well as the club’s new third-line centre, and rejuvenated William Nylander, refreshing in his confidence and ability to hang onto the puck in the offensive zone, has a history of filling in up the middle.

But to juggle one of them off their current lines could create an unnecessary ripple effect of chemistry gone askew. Ask Auston Matthews, he of seven goals in eight games, if he wants Nylander to leave his side.

Sometimes the simplest solution is best.

Try Spezza in Tavares’s spot. Heck, Mitch Marner’s stat sheet and bank statements both argue he should be capable of driving that line on his own.

Double-shift Matthews occasionally to ease Spezza’s workload, excite Marner, and challenge the coach’s belief that Matthews can develop into a premier two-way centre.

If it doesn’t work, so be it. Plug in the blender.

But give Spezza at least a peek in the top six. Let him win draws and show Leafs Nation what type of offence is left in that 36-year-old body.

Surely that nifty midair assist to Frederik Gauthier he had in one of his three Leafs appearances indicates that he has a little more to give in the O-zone:

"To me, it’s really just next game, next day, kind of try to establish myself here. It’s a long season," Spezza said recently, still trying to figure out how he fits.

"Being a role player on a team this good is something I think I can do."

Well, a role has presented itself. And it’s a biggie.

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