Toronto Maple Leafs bring back Jason Spezza for one more year

Jason Spezza of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: Canadian Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs have re-signed 37-year-old forward Jason Spezza to a one-year, league minimum ($700,000) contract, the club announced on Monday morning.

Top 25 in all-time earnings among past and present NHL players (over $88 million), Spezza has signed at the league minimum in Toronto in search of his first Cup ring for the second offseason in a row.

It was a marriage that got off to as rocky of a start as imaginable last October with a home-opening-night scratch against his former team in the Ottawa Senators by then-head coach Mike Babcock, who all camp long talked about Spezza needing to change his game in order to find a way to contribute from a checking-style depth role in Toronto — hinting strongly at the philosophical divide between the former Leafs bench boss and current General Manager on what the team’s fourth line should look like. Frederik Gauthier’s strong camp saw him edge out Spezza at 4C for game one, and Babcock opted to dress offseason signing Nick Shore on the right wing with Spezza’s family in attendance expecting to cheer on the Toronto native’s homecoming at Scotiabank Arena.

Fast forward through the Mike Babcock firing and a league shutdown due to the global pandemic, Spezza was a regular in Sheldon Keefe’s lineup through much of the season, seamlessly took over the ‘team Dad’ role from the departed Patrick Marleau as a good-pro mentor to the team’s young core, and contributed to Leafs fans’ only positive memory from the team’s failed play-in round versus the Columbus Blue Jacket: the non-fighter dropping the gloves with the aim of sparking a lifeless Leafs team that then mounted an unthinkable 4-1 comeback inside the final five minutes of the third period to stave off elimination (for one more game, anyway).

Production-wise, Spezza played at a 13-goal, 35-point 82-game pace (nine goals, 25 points in 58 games) with a rotating cast of linemates, occasionally moving up for shifts on the wing up the lineup, scoring once on John Tavares’ line on the opening shift as Sheldon Keefe sought a do-over of the opening-night scratch during the next-generation game against Carolina. The 37-year-old largely played fourth-line minutes with secondary power-play time, where he was effective on entries for the second unit and chipped in two goals and seven points.

In terms of a working fourth-line unit at 5v5, the best the Leafs showed all year was perhaps in the play-in round against Columbus, with Spezza on the wing next to Kyle Clifford and Pierre Engvall, who took over at center after a poor game one from L4 with Gauthier in the middle. The line didn’t really receive enough minutes to make a consistent impact throughout the series nor did anyone on it record a point over the five games, but it was one of the team’s better lines at tilting the ice and gaining momentum in Games 3 and 4. Clifford is likely to depart in free agency in search of more money than the Leafs can offer, while Engvall’s name has been bandied about as a possible casualty of the cap squeeze after Dubas signed him for two years at $1.25 million just 35 games into his NHL career (after seven goals and seven assists prior to the signing, he managed just one point in 19 games the rest of the way).

With Spezza likely now penciled in as a wing option who could fill in at C in a pinch, the team is also adding Alex Barabanov to the fold and re-signed RFA Denis Malgin for the league minimum over the weekend, while Egor Korshkov could return from the KHL whenever the season starts to vie for a spot. Adam Brooks made a few NHL appearances as 4C last season and could be in the mix as well. Each playoff, the Leafs’ lack of offensive depth contributions compared to their opponent reminds us of the value of depth scoring and jam from the bottom of the lineup; working with limited cap dollars, we’ll have to see what Kyle Dubas’ plan is this week for addressing his fourth line, and whether he goes in the direction of adding a proven veteran presence (or two) who can add a different dynamic to the Leafs’ makeup upfront, or if he feels he has these answers internally. It certainly sounds like we might see the former: