The first player transaction of the offseason for the Maple Leafs is an unsurprising but nonetheless exciting one: Jason Spezza is returning for the 2021-22 season on a one-year, $750,000 contract.
Spezza’s staying home!
Jason Spezza has signed a one-year contract extension. #LeafsForever
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) June 16, 2021
Kyle Dubas indicated that there was a desire to bring back Spezza in his year-end press conference pending a sign-off conversation with head coach Sheldon Keefe, who likely didn’t have to give this one much thought.
Spezza has been a rarity for his age (now 38) in that he seemed to actually get better in his second year with the Leafs. He finished seventh in team scoring with 30 points in 54 games, including 10 goals — a 15-goal, 46-point pace over 82 games — while playing just 11:02 per game, including a secondary role on the power play. 24 of his points came at even strength, where his points/60 rate was third in the NHL behind only Connor McDavid and Brad Marchand league-wide (minimum 100 minutes played).
After going pointless in five games last year vs. Columbus (albeit with one noteworthy fight), Spezza was extremely productive in his limited (11:44/game) role in the playoffs this Spring, notching three big goals and adding two assists in the seven-game series. His 1-1 tally in Game 2 was a timely goal — the Leafs lost Game 1 and did not get off to a strong start in Game 2, falling behind 1-0 before Spezza roared in off the bench, intercepted an intended pass to Wayne Simmonds, and ripped one past Carey Price. Spezza then scored the 2-0 goal and assisted on the 3-0 goal in Game 4 before scoring a huge goal to halve the Habs’ lead to 2-1 in Game 6, which set the Leafs up to force overtime.
The only question worth asking is whether Spezza should have been afforded a few more of the opportunities up the lineup that Joe Thornton received throughout the season, albeit you could argue the coaching staff and the player seem to know the sweet spot in terms of the workload that gets the most out of Spezza at his age.
You can’t ask for a better bang for the buck on a league-minimum contract, especially when you layer on top the intangible contributions the Mississauga native brings to the team.
Spezza showed his dedication to the franchise and his value as a leader when he signed off on Dubas passing him through waivers early in the season to help with the team’s roster flexibility issues under the new taxi-squad rules while warning other teams that he would retire if claimed by another franchise. He has basically been an impossible player or person to criticize, rolling with the punches during the Mike Babcock incident upon his arrival in Toronto and continuing to embrace whatever role is asked of him under Sheldon Keefe, including taking right-side faceoffs on the penalty kill.
While the likes of Simmonds and Thornton may well depart this summer after just a 56-game season and a short playoff run with the team, Spezza remains a hugely important leadership fixture on the team as a first-on, last-off type of player at practice who is constantly mentoring the young talent in the organization on various aspects of the game both on and off the ice. His leadership in pooling money together for the Marlies players who were missing paycheques this season due to the pandemic’s impact on the hockey schedule spoke volumes about his character.
Combine all of the intangible value with his productivity and timely offense on the ice, and the Leafs are clearly fortunate to have a player and person of Spezza’s ilk back for another season (on a league-minimum contract yet again) in hopes that the third time is a charm for his Cup aspirations.