TORONTO — After all these years and all these games, Jason Spezza still feels like there’s something to prove.
He’s counselled many a teammate about the importance of staying upbeat through a string of scratches during his days as a 20-minute-per-night scorer and is choosing to practice what he once preached now that he’s become a depth forward with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I was lucky to kind of be at the top of the mountain on a team for a long time and now I’m at the bottom and I’ve got to grind and do what I told those guys to do,” Spezza said before Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins.
A week ago, the 36-year-old centre was looking at a potential demotion with the Leafs facing a salary cap crunch because of Zach Hyman’s impending return from off-season knee surgery.
Now he’s been extended a lifeline with Mitch Marner’s high-ankle sprain, Alex Kerfoot’s dental fracture surgery and a shoulder injury to Trevor Moore suffered early in Friday’s game on a jarring hit from Chris Wagner.
No recovery timeline was provided for either Kerfoot or Moore, but it’s safe to assume Spezza will receive a run of games with both staying home to start a six-game road trip. It was this possibility, or inevitably, that kept his spirits up during the series of bag skates he went through while being scratched four of the last five games.
“Frustration’s just useless. Like, it’s really a useless emotion, it doesn’t do you any good, you lose confidence over it,” said Spezza. “Yeah there’s days when I come when I’m maybe not as upbeat as I am other days, but I think you just really try to refocus every day. I know it’s a long game involved here, there’s going to be injuries and now it’s come maybe sooner than we would have liked as a team.
“But for me it’s an opportunity and that’s why I try to stay sharp.”
Spezza looked good skating in the No. 3 centre role behind Auston Matthews and John Tavares. Playing in his 1,076th career game on a Hockey Hall of Fame Night that included a ceremony featuring Mats Sundin — an opponent Bryan Murray would frequently match Spezza against when he was first getting established in the league — the Leafs veteran won pucks back on the forecheck and helped control play.
He had his legs and showed the kind of offensive awareness the team’s other depth options generally lack.
It wasn’t perfect.
About 20 seconds prior to Charlie Coyle opening the scoring for Boston, Spezza had his own look at an open net and fired wide. That’s part of the challenge when you’re playing for just the second time in 13 days.
“I think the hardest thing is your touch,” said Spezza. “The legs are there because we work hard on conditioning, but it’s the touch that you have to work on. So that’s kind of the challenge that you have and that’s what I’m constantly trying to figure out different ideas of things to do that way.”
As is often the case when these teams meet, the Leafs left Scotiabank Arena disappointed.
They’ve dropped four straight games and each of them was there for the taking.
On Friday, Auston Matthews tied the score 1-1 heading into the third period but Brad Marchand struck twice for Boston early in the third period — at 11 seconds and 5:08 — sandwiching those goals around a Kasperi Kapanen strike.
“They got ahead and they played right and made it hard on us,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “I thought we played well and it was a good hockey game, [we] had lots of good players up front.
“We carried play at times, they carried play at times, they had good players, but we’re coming up short. You can’t say that after the game.”
Spezza’s line was hemmed in its own zone when Marchand jumped off the bench undetected to score that winner.
Still, there was something to build off in his 12-plus minutes of ice time. Plus you won’t hear any complaints from a veteran who has committed himself to embracing the grind — giving his absolute best effort no matter what each day throws his way.
He figures that’s what it’ll take to extend his NHL career as long as possible. It’s something the former No. 2 draft pick has seen many others do during an 18-year tour around the world’s best hockey league.
“This isn’t a unique situation,” said Spezza. “Maybe it’s just more talked about because it’s me and I’m at the end of my career and I’m here in Toronto, but this goes on everywhere. A lot of times it’s guys that nobody even knows about or talks about and the ones that keep working give themselves a chance.
“If you don’t, then you don’t.”