As the Toronto Maple Leafs look to retool their roster in the wake of their sixth straight first-round exit, key questions will be answered at the heart of their lineup. The top six, the base four, are the central pieces that will guide the club’s quest for a better result in 2022-23 in May and June.
But beyond the margins of the list, there is another subtle but important question that needs to be answered. How about Jason Spiza, the older statesman of the Maple Leafs, who used to take discounts in his hometown to commit to his childhood team?
After another disappointing finale that left the Maple Leafs reeling, and many questioned what changes to the roster would undergo before it returns to the ice in October, the 38-year-old’s blue-and-white future looks a lot hazier than it did last summer.
“I don’t know, I’m a little lost now, to be honest,” Spezza said Tuesday, when asked what happens next as he looks to recover from the disappointment of this short run after the season. “Things are looking a little different this year for me. So, at this point, I’m just with my family and hanging out.
“There are a lot of questions.”
One thing that’s not in question, though, is Player 19’s willingness to take another round to help propel these beleaguered Maple Leafs to the finish line, if they’re willing to take it back.
“I love the game. I have always emphasized that if I can give importance to the group, if I am a contributor every night, then I want to play,” he said. “So, there are conversations to have with me, the management and the coaches. But, that is the only place I will play.”
Spezza’s transformation in Toronto is well documented. The former Ottawa Senator and Dallas Star, a 90-point offensive phenomenon at the height of his life, has changed every aspect of his identity as an NHLer to stay in the league as his career approaches two decades. Over these past three seasons, this has meant trading glory among the top six in sixth place, playing 10-11 minutes a night or no playing at all, and making more of an impact on the ice than he is.
“I had to reshape myself as a player in order to survive,” Spiza said of that trip. “I’m not the player I used to be – I don’t think anyone when they turn 39 will be the same player they were in their twenties. But I tried to contribute everything I had every night. I think sometimes I really liked my game, sometimes I was Frustrated with where my game is.
“But I think I 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 was left of me. That was kind of my daily focus, just trying to get everything out of myself.”
Seeing the team fall short again, despite seeing them have to answer all the same questions they did a year ago, has led the veteran to question how much his presence really has affected the rise of this club.
“I really thought the team was going to break through this year. I put in so much effort trying to help get the group over the edge, so failing again is frustrating for me.” This leads me to ask myself questions about ‘Have I done enough? Did you help by pressing the right buttons? Did I do everything I could to help the team get through it? So, I think it’s difficult.
“It’s just, these opportunities, they don’t come up very often. So, this is tough.”
Frustrating as the elder Liv might be, you don’t have to dig far to see how he helped propel this club forward.
When these foliage found themselves late in Game Five of their first round match with defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning, losing 2-0 on a night that would send them to a 3-2 deficit in a series and perhaps even a faster demise, it was Spezza who rallied his teammates In between – gave a rousing speech in the break, before returning Toronto with a 4-3 win.
This team will go as does its core, the top six highly paid star-studded leaders. But in the background, far from the spotlight, there are a few questions that No. 19 played a key role in propelling his club to the fore.
“I don’t know if I can measure, and I even have the words to say how important he was to our team,” Jon Tavares said of Spezza. “Specifically for me, as the captain. He’s someone I can really count on. And then it’s clear what he can do as a hockey player, how he just accepted the role, because he really believes in this group here and what we can do and the opportunity that we have.”
“Not only that – it’s the joy and pleasure he brings every day, at his age and for how long he has been. He was a player and a very important person to us.”
“He meant a lot,” Morgan Riley echoed. “He was a great leader for us. He was a man who almost everyone could count on, who had the opportunity to lean back and pick his brain.”
Kyle Dubas only said he’ll meet with Spezza over the coming days and go from there, but no matter what happens next, there’s no doubting what Spezza brought to the organization during his time in Toronto, the GM said.
“It’s really hard to fully describe the impact he’s had on the team,” Dubbas said. “It’s clear his contributions to the roster, but in the locker room, in the summer, the time he spends with every young player since the day he arrived. He’s a special person.”
For veteran Mark Giordano, who finds himself in a similar situation 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 a first-round hurdle.
“We are both very similar in the sense that we are from Toronto and have our family here. We grew up here. So, I look forward to sitting down with Spezz and having good conversations during the next segment,” Giordano said. “But I’m sure there’s a lot on his mind, just like me.”
While there is uncertainty surrounding Giordano’s future in Toronto as well, it’s for different reasons given his place in the game. Giordano, a former Norris Cup winner and former captain of two franchises, has proven this season that he can still be an influential back-end player, with the 38-year-old averaging over 20 minutes per night during the first round of the Leafs series.
Whether Toronto will consider bringing him back, and whether they are able to do so, is up in the air. But as in Spezza, the allure of that connection to the city leaves the door open, Giordano said.
“Everyone knows I’m from Toronto, I love it here, I loved my time here. So, we’ll see what happens,” said the veteran back guard. “I’ll talk to my agent here next week, or after that. He’s still very fresh from losing. 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 blue and white or for the fourth franchise in his nearly two-decade career, the former Calgary Flames captain said he’s confident he can do at that level.
“I feel like I can still contribute, I can still help the team move forward and push the needle forward. I always say, the moment I don’t think I am contributing in a positive way, I won’t continue,” he said. “But I feel good about my game, and I feel like a guy who can also help the youth along the way. I felt good, I will continue to train hard, and I hope to continue playing here for a few more years.”
And perhaps because of this consistency, that fight to remain a major contributor even towards the end of his career, is that he honors the journey his fellow veteran has taken in his hometown of Toronto.
Giordano said of Spezza, “I mean, he’s been a standout player in the league for a long time, and to be able to go from a guy who has probably played over 20 nights to play his part this year, to see him fit in and play so well in that role is really impressive. Not many can. More players in the league do that at the end of their careers.”
With so much unpacking and autopsy to do before Dupas & Co can make decisions about who will return and who will move, it’s too early to tell if either Giordano or Spiza will be in the colors of the Maple Leafs in October. But for Jake Muzin, another seasoned captain who has wisely returned to Ontario to participate and a young team to mentor, the value his longtime teammates have brought in their time here is clear.
“It’s good to have seasoned men in the room,” Muzin said of the pair. “They calm things down, say things when they need to be said. They keep men honest.”
“Two guys from Toronto as well. That means more, I think, for these guys.”