TORONTO — There’s a reason why Jason Spezza’s resurgent season with the Maple Leafs hasn’t taken on the feel of a farewell tour.
The man in the middle of it isn’t preparing to say goodbye.
In fact, with his role evolving since Sheldon Keefe took over as Toronto’s head coach, Spezza is already prepared to say that he intends to return for an 18th NHL season next fall.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said Monday. “If I can contribute down the stretch and the team has success, I don’t see why not.”
There’s been a seamless fit here for both player and team — despite a rocky start that saw former coach Mike Babcock scratch Spezza on opening night — and the 36-year-old has more than held up his end of the bargain while playing for the league-minimum $700,000.
Getting production on that kind of contract is essential for a capped-out team like the Leafs, who will need to be creative around the margins while paying more than $40-million to four forwards. And that doesn’t even factor in the intangible qualities brought by a veteran voice whose become immensely popular in the dressing room.
On Spezza’s goal against the Anaheim Ducks last week, Mitch Marner said: “The bench blew up. If there’s any video footage or anything of our bench, I’m sure every guy was jumping around going wild. It’s like we all keep saying: ‘That’s just vintage Spezza coming back out to play right now.”’
Spezza wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when he chose his hometown team from a list of interested suitors on July 1, but he’s managed to whittle out a utility role that sees him jump between the third and fourth lines. He’s played 31 of 33 games since Keefe took over — both scratches were on the tail end of a back-to-back — after sitting 10 of the first 23 games under Babcock.
We are just emerging from the grinding dog days of the season and, if anything, Spezza seems to be making an even bigger impact now than earlier on. He scored that highlight-reel goal Marner raved about while playing a season-high 15:34 during Friday’s win over Anaheim and then followed it up with a strong performance in Montreal on Saturday while lining up as the third-line centre between Kyle Clifford and Kasperi Kapanen.
“I liked it. I think he’s skating really well,” said Keefe. “He’s got a lot of speed coming through the middle of the ice.”
And he’s having fun, too, which is probably why Spezza hasn’t found himself taking in the sights and sounds a little more closely throughout the year or thinking to himself: ‘Hey, what if this is the last time I’ll play in this rink?’
“Not at all, to be honest,” he said. “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day. … I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places.
“I hope to have a good year and keep going.”
Players like him are an endangered species in a league that is pushing ever younger.
At age 36, Spezza’s already the sixth-oldest forward in the NHL — behind Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Justin Williams, Mikko Koivu and Ilya Kovalchuk. One trait they all share is they’re each a former first-round pick who has found a way to adapt and hang on to a job.
That, and the chance to chase a Stanley Cup with his boyhood team, is what really drove Spezza through the early part of this season. The former No. 2 overall pick and 90-point star is grateful for the chance to keep chasing the dream so long after he first started living it.
“I love the intensity of it, I love the challenge of trying to get ready, I love the challenge of being 36 and trying to reinvent myself a little bit,” Spezza said during training camp. “I like hanging out with the guys, the banter in the room, the practices. I don’t know if I’m a little bit crazy, but I like the grind of it.
“I kind of appreciate the grind.”
That enthusiasm hasn’t faded more than two-thirds of the way into another season.
The Leafs are enjoying favourable possession and expected-goal rates with Spezza on the ice, and have received some offensive pop off his stick, too. He already sits at nine goals — more than he scored in his final two seasons with the Dallas Stars.
“I feel good. Like I felt good last year down the stretch, too,” said Spezza. “I’m excited to play this time of year.”
Based on how this is playing out, there’s already a pretty strong case for keeping him in Toronto for another one.