As the Toronto Maple Leafs look to retool their roster in the wake of a sixth-straight first-round exit, the key questions will be answered at the core of their lineup. The top six, the Core Four, the central pieces that will drive the club’s 2022-23 quest for a better result in May and June.
But further out on the fringes of the roster, there’s another subtle, yet important, question in need of answering. What of Jason Spezza, the Maple Leafs’ elder statesman, who’s gotten in the habit of taking hometown discounts to stick with his boyhood team?
After one more disappointing finish left the Maple Leafs faithful reeling, and had many wondering what changes the roster will undergo before it returns to the ice in October, the 38-year-old’s future in blue and white looks more hazy than it has in summers past.
“I don’t know, I’m a little lost right now, to be honest,” Spezza said Tuesday, when asked about what comes next for him as he looks to recover from the disappointment of this brief post-season run. “Things feel a little bit different this year for me. So, at this point, I’m just being with my family and hanging out.
“There’s lots of questions.”
One thing that is not in question, though, is No. 19’s willingness to take another run at helping nudge these beleaguered Maple Leafs over the finish line, if they’re willing to have him back.
“I love the game. I’ve always maintained that if I can provide significance to the group, if I’m a contributor every night, then I want to play,” he said. “So, there’s conversations that have to be had with me and management, the coaches. But, this is the only place I would play.”
Spezza’s transformation in Toronto is well-documented. A 90-point offensive phenom in his prime, the former Ottawa Senator and Dallas Star has changed every aspect of who he is as an NHLer to remain in the league as his career nears the two-decade mark. Over these past three seasons, that’s meant trading top-six glory for the bottom-six grind, playing 10 to 11 minutes a night or not at all, and making more of a mark off the ice than on it.
“I’ve had to reshape myself as a player to survive,” Spezza said of that journey. “I’m not the player that I used to be — I don’t think anybody when they get to 39 is going to be the same player he was in his 20s. But I tried to contribute with everything I had every night. I think at times I really liked my game, at times I was frustrated with where my game was at.
“But I think I just really tried to accept the role and be good at it, be the best I could be with what I was given and with what I have left. That was kind of my daily focus, just trying to get everything out of myself.”
Seeing the team fall short once more, though, seeing them have to answer all the same questions they did a year ago, has led the veteran to question how impactful his presence really was on this club’s ascent.
“I really, truly believed that the team was going to break through this year. I’ve put a lot of effort into trying to help get the group over the edge, and then to fail again is frustrating for myself,” he said. “It leads me to asking myself questions of, ‘Did I do enough? Did I help push the right buttons? Did I do everything I could do to help the team get over?’ So, I think it’s just hard.
"It’s just, these chances, they don’t come very often. So, it’s hard.”
Dejected as the elder Leaf may be, you don’t have to dig too far back to get a sense of how he's helped to pull this club forward.
When these Leafs found themselves trailing in Game 5 of that first-round bout with the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, down 2-0 on a night that would’ve sent them to a 3-2 series deficit and perhaps an even quicker demise, it was Spezza who rallied his mates between periods — delivering a rousing speech in the intermission, before Toronto stormed back to gut out a 4-3 win.
This team will go as their core does, their highly-paid star-studded top-six leaders. But in the background, away from the lights, there’s little question No. 19’s played his own essential role in pushing his club towards progress.
“I don’t know if I can measure, and even have the words to say how important he’s been for our team,” John Tavares said of Spezza. “Specifically for myself, as the captain. He’s someone that I can really lean on. And then obviously what he can do as a hockey player, and how he’s just accepted the role that he has, because he truly believes in this group here and what we can do and the opportunity that we have.
“It’s not even just that — it’s the fun and the joy he brings every day, at his age and how long he’s been around. He’s been an extremely important player and person for us.”
“He’s meant a lot,” echoed Morgan Rielly. “He’s been a great leader for us. He’s been a guy that almost everybody can lean on, and has had an opportunity to lean on and pick his brain.”
Kyle Dubas would only say that he’ll meet with Spezza over the coming days and go from there, but regardless of what happens next, there’s no questioning what Spezza’s brought to the organization over his tenure in Toronto, the GM said.
“It’s hard to really fully describe the impact that he’s had on the team,” Dubas said. “Obviously his contributions to the roster, but in the locker room, in summer, the time he puts in with every single younger player from the day he’s arrived. He’s a special person.”
For veteran Mark Giordano, who finds himself in something of a similar position as a hometown veteran with question-marks surrounding his future, he can relate to the emotional turmoil Spezza is going through after failing to lift the group over that first-round hurdle.
“We’re both very similar in the sense that we’re both from Toronto and we have our family here. We grew up here. So, I’m looking forward to sitting down with Spezz and having good conversations over the next little bit,” Giordano said. “But I’m sure there’s a ton going through his mind, just like myself.”
While uncertainty surrounds Giordano’s future in Toronto too, it's for different reasons given his place in the game. A former Norris Trophy winner and captain of two previous franchises, Giordano proved this season he can still be an impact player on the back end, the 38-year-old averaging more than 20 minutes a night over the Leafs’ first-round series.
Whether Toronto will look to bring him back, and whether they can afford to do so, is up in the air. But as it has for Spezza, the allure of that hometown connection leaves the door open, Giordano said.
“Everyone knows I’m from Toronto, I love it here, I’ve loved my time here. So, we’ll see what happens,” the veteran rearguard said. “I’ll talk to my agent here in the next week, or after. It’s still pretty fresh from the loss. But I’ll talk to him and go from there. Obviously, I don’t think it’s a secret that I enjoyed my time here.”
Whether it’s in blue and white or for the fourth franchise of his near-two-decades-long career, the former Calgary Flames leader said he’s confident in what he can still do at this level.
“I feel like I could still contribute, I could still help the team push forward, push the needle forward. I always say, the moment I don’t think I’m contributing in a positive way, I’m not going to keep going,” he said. “But I feel pretty good about my game, and I feel like I’m a guy who can also help young guys along the way. I felt good, and I’ll keep training hard, and hopefully keep playing here for a few more years.”
And it's perhaps because of that consistency, that fight to remain a key contributor even in the twilight of his career, that he respects the journey his fellow hometown veteran's gone on in Toronto.
"I mean, he’s been a top guy in the league for a long time," Giordano said of Spezza, "and for him to be able to go from a guy who probably played over 20 a night to playing in his role this year, to see him adapt and play so well in that role is really impressive. Not a lot of guys in the league can do that at the end of their careers."
With much unpacking and dissecting to be done before Dubas and Co. make decisions on who will return and who will move on, it’s too soon to know whether either of Giordano or Spezza will be in Maple Leafs colours come October. But for Jake Muzzin, another seasoned leader who came home to Ontario with wisdom to share and a young team to guide, the value his fellow veterans brought in their time here is clear.
“It’s nice to have veteran guys in the room,” Muzzin said of the pair. “They calm things down, they say things when they need to be said. They keep guys honest.
“Two guys from Toronto, too. It means a little bit more, I think, for those guys.”