Maple Leafs veterans Spezza, Thornton, Simmonds discuss future with team

Maple Leafs veteran forward Joe Thornton says he's going to take some time to decide on his NHL future, says first and foremost he has to be a dad for a bit, but he feels really good and that's a good sign.

In the wake of a fifth straight first-round exit for the Toronto Maple Leafs, this one a collapse that saw the division-leading team relinquish a 3-1 series lead and fall in Game 7, focus has shifted from a 2021 run to retooling the roster for 2022.

While questions swirl about the highly paid core, more pressing for Kyle Dubas and Co. are the decisions to be made for the support players who filled out the fringes, particularly the group of veterans that joined the team on one-year deals last off-season.

Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds now head into unrestricted free agency following the end of the Maple Leafs' 2020-21 campaign, three among a group of 12 Toronto UFAs. For at least two of the three, a return would be welcomed with open arms.

"I would," the 37-year-old Spezza said when asked if he hopes to come back next season. "I feel like there's a lot of unfinished business. I feel very invested in the group here, and hopeful that I get another opportunity to do that again next year and push this team over the top."

After a productive series that saw him rank among the top Maple Leafs post-season scorers, and his highest regular-season point total in four years, Spezza also spoke about his drive to continue to produce nearly two decades into his NHL career.

"I love the game," he said. "I realize that my opportunities to win are becoming less and less, and that probably creates a high level of desperation internally for me to drive and to be my best every day. I'm not sure how much longer this goes and I'll get an opportunity to try to win. And I really want to win."

Simmonds, who joined his hometown Leafs after a whirlwind pair of seasons that saw him split time between Philadelphia, Nashville, New Jersey and Buffalo, said he's unsure what the future holds for him and the Maple Leafs.

"I got no clue, to be honest with you," he said. "I thoroughly enjoyed my time this year playing for the Leafs. Although it is a sport we play, we love the game we play, it is a business. We didn't get past that Game 7 threshold, so I honestly don't know what management's thought process is, or how the coaching staff feels about the support pieces on the team.

"I'd definitely be open to coming back, that's for sure, but like I said, it is a business, and only time will tell."

Questions regarding Thornton's future are bigger than whether he'll return to Toronto in 2021-22. After four years of contemplating his future and signing one-year deals, the game's oldest player will once again take some time away before deciding whether or not to continue his big-league career.

"This came so sudden, I really haven't had time to think about it," Thornton said when asked if he plans on returning to play a 24th season. "First and foremost, I have to be a dad for a little bit here. But I feel really, really healthy. I feel really, really good.

"But we'll see. I haven't made any decision yet."

Aside from the veterans, the most pressing UFA questions for the Maple Leafs management team involve top-six forward Zach Hyman and former No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen, both of whom said they have yet to speak with Dubas or make any decisions about their future with the club.

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