COLUMBUS, Ohio — The door might finally have swung open for Jason Spezza with his new head coach.
At the heart of the uncertainty over the veteran centre’s status with the Toronto Maple Leafs is the fact Mike Babcock hasn’t been totally convinced he’d be willing to put his ego aside and embrace life as a grinder.
Let’s face it: The NHL isn’t exactly brimming with former superstars who may only get on the ice a couple times a period to take a defensive zone draw and immediately head to the bench. Yet there Spezza was Friday, eking out 10 minutes in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets after being scratched for the season opener, and still finding tangible ways to contribute to the cause.
“I was impressed with him tonight,” said Babcock. “I was impressed [that] he was happy with what we need him to do.”
That attitude will be vital to making this homecoming a happy one for the former No. 2 overall pick.
What’s clear in these early days of the Leafs season is that Spezza is among a handful of depth forwards still battling for a roster spot. He and Nic Petan joined Frederik Gauthier on the fourth line here at Nationwide Arena but will be replaced by Dmytro Timashov and Nick Shore for Saturday’s home game against Montreal.
However, Babcock has already indicated that Spezza-Gauthier-Petan will be reunited for Monday’s visit by the St. Louis Blues as the coaching staff enacts a rotation before deciding what look it likes best from the lunch-pail crew.
Spezza didn’t let his lack of minutes keep him from making an impact against Columbus. He drew a first-period interference penalty against David Savard and saw teammate Mitch Marner make it 1-0 on the ensuing power play, before delivering a pair of perfectly executed seven-second FOGO shifts: Face-off, get-off.
This is not glamorous work when you’ve had multiple 90-point seasons and appearances at the all-star game.
“You judge your nights differently now,” said Spezza. “We’re trying to be a good positive influence on the game. We’re trying to make sure that we’re playing down there [in the offensive zone]. We’re getting D-zone assignments and making sure we get out quick. Trying to be good on both ends of the special teams.”
The 36-year-old would prefer not to have been at the centre of a couple media uproars already with his new team. One came in the early days of training camp when Babcock questioned whether Spezza really wanted the role he envisioned for him and the second arrived Wednesday when he watched the season opener from press level in a suit.
Still, he’s remained outwardly stoic, saying: “I understand it’s been talked about quite a bit, but to me it’s really just next game, next day, kind of try to establish myself here. It’s a long season.”
Whether by design or not, he’s being tested. And he earned something better than passing marks with the way he responded in his Leafs debut.
Consider that the 10:36 he played was the 36th-lowest total he’s received during a 17-year NHL career. Put another way, he’s seen the ice more in 1,030 games in the world’s top hockey league.
Spezza still found a way to win a couple big draws — he was officially listed as 5-5 in the faceoff circle — while generating two shots on goal and playing on a line that generated 100 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts despite starting all three post-whistle shifts it took in the defensive zone.
“He was definitely a force for us tonight,” defenceman Cody Ceci said of Spezza. “He’s a big body, he controls the puck and, yeah, he was drawing penalties and hemming them in their zone. He’s always good at controlling the puck since he’s got that long reach.”
“I thought Spezza was real good and I thought he was real happy to be doing what he’s doing,” added Babcock. “He was great on the bench. He was great on the ice. He was good in the room.”
These are all things Spezza has previously said he would do, but clearly needed to show his new boss. Actions over words and all that. He only dressed for three pre-season games — the last coming Sept. 25 — so there was a wait before he had a chance to do it in this kind of environment.
The only reason he’s still willing to grind through all of this adversity and drama is because he so badly wants to lift the Stanley Cup. Yes, it was the opportunity to do something money can’t buy that brought him to the Leafs on a league-minimum contract near the end of a $90-million career.
“I think we have a good team and that’s why I’m here,” said Spezza. “For me I think I can help on the second power-play unit. I want to grasp the penalty-kill stuff and be able to be someone they can put on to win draws and get us out of our end.
“Being a role player on a team this good is something I think I can do.”
It sure looked like it on Friday night.