TORONTO — “The fire still burns, and I really hope to be back here next year.”
This is Jason Spezza laying his cards on the table and placing his heart on his sleeve.
The 37-year-old unrestricted free agent does not want his 17-year NHL run to go out like this, his last game-sheet appearance a gutty fight, his final result a heartbreaking loss.
“I know I’m not the player I once was, but I do feel like I can help quite a bit,” Spezza said Wednesday. “When you lose, there’s consequences, but I’d really love a chance to come back with this group.”
Spezza, a father of four girls, has made his home (again) in this city. He has already made his millions and wants another crack at a Stanley Cup. He signed a one-year contract in 2019-20 to chase a dream for the league-minimum $700,000.
“We’re not up against the cap, contrary to everyone’s belief. We’ve got a little bit of space,” Dubas said Wednesday. “We’ve got restricted free agents only to sign back… .So, we’ll get them taken care of using the mechanisms the league provides for both and have discussions with their people.”
The question becomes: Does Spezza — a fast favourite among teammates — fit into Dubas’s vision of filling in the fringes?
Despite his age, Spezza remained healthy all season, contributed to the second power-play unit and was an invaluable voice of experience in a young room.
In the play-in series loss to Columbus, his fourth line didn’t register a goal, but didn’t get scored on either. Spezza started the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone and ended the majority in the O-zone, prompting Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella to call out his own fourth-line pivot, Alexander Wennberg, after Game 4.
“Wenny just hasn’t stepped up, plain and simple. He’s done a really good job killing penalties, but Spezza’s line fed it to him. “That’s why Toronto was playing Spezza’s line. If it wasn’t the Matthews, Marner and Tavares with the goalie pulled, it was Spezza’s line.”
Spezza finished the abbreviated regular season with nine goals and 16 assists, an uptick in production rate from his previous two seasons in Dallas.
“To me, it’s special to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s special to play for an Original Six team, being a Toronto boy, something I dreamed of. You wanted to be a part of something special,” Spezza said.
“I didn’t take for granted any days I got to put the jersey on. It was really important for me and for us to have a good culture to do well, and it’s really disappointing to be done this early.”
Dubas will not waste time reaching out to the GMs of the 14 other eliminated franchises and sketching out a course to fill around his core with free agents and trades.
Spezza is an option, but he won’t be the only one.
“It will be on me to be creative,” Dubas said.