TORONTO — It’s safe to assume this wasn’t part of the free-agent pitch to Jason Spezza in the off-season: Come home, sign a league-minimum contract, be a positive influence on a young roster and watch the opener in street clothes.
Mike Babcock’s decision to scratch the veteran from Wednesday’s game against his former team appeared more significant for what it symbolized rather than what it meant from a hockey perspective.
Spezza, at age 36, is the fourth-oldest forward in the NHL. He willingly signed up for a fourth-line role with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but obviously believed there’d be a niche for him when he picked the club over other suitors.
"I was talking to a bunch of different places," Spezza told Sportsnet during training camp. "(General manager Kyle Dubas) was pretty aggressive in calling me. We talked quite a bit early on and then arranged meetings and sat down with Babs and had a good chat with him about expectations, where they would be and where they see me fit.
"At that point I thought it was a great opportunity and wanted to do whatever possible to make it work, knowing the team was going to have salary restraints and stuff."
That last part is a reference to the fact he signed a $700,000 contract — a 90 per cent pay cut from what he’d been earning on his last deal with the Dallas Stars and an extra bonus for a top-heavy Leafs team that needs to find value wherever it can because of salary-cap constraints.
Given the circumstances around his arrival in Toronto, Spezza could have made for a nice tidy sidebar Wednesday. The whole local boy plays his first game for the Leafs angle … against the Ottawa Senators, the organization that took him second overall, no less.
Instead, he turned into a major talking point in the hours before the Leafs were expected to unveil a captain because he was replaced by Nick Shore alongside Frederik Gauthier and Dmytro Timashov on the fourth line.
"It’s more disappointing because it’s the opener," Spezza told reporters after an extended morning skate. "Definitely you want to be a part of these games, they give you things to get excited about.
"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed, but I’m also a professional and I’m going to get ready to go."
Officially, Babcock cited Spezza’s adjustment to a penalty-killing role as the reason he was scratched. The coach said it would buy him a couple more days of reps before making his Leafs debut in Columbus against the Blue Jackets on Friday night.
But after a training camp where Babcock mused about whether Spezza would embrace a diminished role and then scratched him for Saturday’s pre-season finale in addition to Wednesday’s curtain-raiser, it’s hard not to wonder where this is headed.
"I talked to him quite a bit about this and what we’re doing," said Babcock. "We’re on the same page moving ahead. We’re going to have a rotation on a few guys this first little bit until we figure out what we’re doing."
It should be noted that it’s not the coach’s job to worry about nice stories or what might have been said during free-agent pitch meetings months ago. He is solely tasked with icing the lineup he feels gives his team the best chance for success that night.
And Spezza, who was scratched as recently as last season’s playoffs by the Stars, acknowledged that he must win over Babcock in order to make this a successful chapter late in his career.
"He’s the coach and he decides the lineup and I have to get up to speed with what he wants," said Spezza. "I need to get more reps on the PK to earn that comfort level with him. For me, it’s just working every day and being prepared. It’s a long season. It’s obviously disappointing, you want to play to open the season, there’s no doubt about that.
"The competitor in you wants to be in every right now, but you play the hand that you’re dealt. For me, I’m just going to work and be ready and when I get in you make sure you play well."