Replacing Jason Spezza would be very difficult for the Maple Leafs front desk which now houses, well, Jason Spezza.
Spezza was truly one when he first joined the Leafs at the age of 36 in 2019.
He was a former superstar willing (and able) to fill any part in the pursuit of the Stanley Cup. He’s been emulated, on and off the ice, and willingly advised anyone, star or not, who needed guidance. Also: He played for pennies on the dollar – only $700,000 in the first season.
Few, if any, players will check all of these boxes.
There is also the question of whether the Leafs should try to find the next Jason Spezza. That is, should they fill one place on the list with an older player if they can still play a little and make some kind of intangible impact.
The Leafs may want to leave the bottom of their roster completely open to younger players, whether they already have them (Joey Anderson, Nick Robertson etc.) or those they might chase in deals or free agency.
Mark Giordano is back and could play a Spezza-like role (with more responsibility on the ice). Wayne Symonds is also under contract for next season, although it remains to be seen if he will return and/or be a regular.
However, given how influential Spezza has been during his three seasons with the Leafs, there’s reason to believe it’s at least useful to see if someone out there – besides Giordano – can provide a veteran effect and do it on the cheap.
This is an essential part of the criteria here. Papers can’t be spent much here. That’s why someone like Paul Stastney, for example, doesn’t do the cut. (Probably he pulled over $1 million from the open market.)
Giordano’s return will likely ensure that if the Leafs seek such a player, it will be up front.
Who might fix the invoice in the free agent market? Ranking of eight potential candidates.
8. Jay Beagle
Beagle is nearing the end of a solid career in the National Hockey League, which included the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018. Beagle will turn 37 in October. He spent last season playing 14 minutes per game for the humble coyote. Leaves can reduce those minutes. Beagle is a big guy — 6-foot-3, 210 pounds — who can bring some muscle, bite, and competitiveness to the bottom of the squad. He is accustomed to heavy use in his area (30 percent of offensive area start percentage last season), often against superior competitors. It might be worth having a guy like this in the playoffs.
Beagle’s base numbers were…not so good last season. How much of that has to do with fading talent in the desert? How much of that beagle gas runs out?
The Beagle wouldn’t come up with anything offensive. what will he do? Win the matches. With Spezza’s retirement, the Leafs lost the better right-handed encounter option. Beagle is not only good in this regard. He’s awesome, one of the best players in recent memory. He won 57 percent of his draws last season, one of the highest scores in the league. This makes him useful in defensive zone draws late in the game and in penalty kicks, where he is supposed to play a deep role.
7. Derek Stepan
Stepan lost his place in the Hurricanes lineup during playoffs, so this deserves to be taken into account. He’s had a strong enough regular season with Carolina with nine goals and 19 points, all five to five. He won 56 percent of the raffle and had solid base numbers, for what he’s worth, on the predictable goals machine which is Carolina. Stepan will be 32 later this month. He has all kinds of experience. Keep the question in check and maybe he can take a minor role on the fourth line.
6. Tyler Bosak
Wouldn’t that be fun? Bozak ended his career in the NHL where he started. The real question is whether Bozak has enough time at this point to give the Leafs something On the snow. Before leaving to play for the Blues after the 2017-18 season, he was a respected captain in the locker room.
Bozak went from playing 15 minutes per game two seasons ago to averaging 12 for St. Louis last year. He’s drawn less than 10 in every game during the post-season, and has struggled, even scratching at times. Bozak’s offensive production has also fallen dramatically during the regular season – to just three goals and 12 points in 50 games. Even Bouzak’s usual tie-breaking consistency took a big hit last year – he’s down just 45 percent. He was a hit with the Blues though in playoff time, with the winner in Game Five against Colorado.
Lots of red flags? Can.
Bozak missed a lot of time due to the injury, so this may have had something to do with his poor results. Just one season ago, Bozak, 34, had scored 17 points in 31 games, while winning 57 percent of his draws. Pair it with speed and some fourth-line skill and maybe the Leafs can get something like that — including standoff prowess as the right way — from the guy who checked out the University of Denver all those years ago.
5. Brian Boyle
Another potential return. The Leafs flipped in the second round to Lightning to get Boyle into the 2017 trading deadline. It didn’t quite work out and it was a heavy price to pay for a fourth-line position. The choice became Alexander Volkov, who was not stuck in the NHL. Boyle is a lot bigger now, obviously – 37 on 38 in December. He had something of a career revival last season in Pittsburgh though. Boyle has 11 goals and 21 points playing under 11 minutes per game. He is, of course, huge at 6 feet 6 and 245 pounds. This is the size and brute force that Leafs can use at match time. Could Patrick Maron be a poor guy at this point in his career? Perhaps this is asking too much. Boyle still checks well in defence, which means he could give David Kampf some support in the standoff section of the defensive zone – although he’s not particularly great at draws and shots on the left, just like Kampf, Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
4. Sam Gagner
There’s a reason you love Gagner as Spezza.
For one thing, he proved that he can still be a useful player in the National Hockey League last season. Gagner scored 13 goals for the Red Wings and added 18 assists. All but two of these points came with equal strength. Gagner spent nearly 14 minutes per game moving up the Detroit squad. He was the Wings’ most popular penalty kick player. He’s not the quickest guy, with his 33rd birthday approaching in August, but he can still keep up.
Gagner could bring in quite a bit of scoring from the fourth line, something they lacked last season, and fills the top emergency lineup. He can play center or wing and is likely to play a deep role in PK.
What’s Next? He is Jon Tavares’ best friend. The Leafs also had their own experience with Gagner. He played with the Marlies – and their then head coach Sheldon Keefe – on loan from Vancouver during the 2018-2019 season. London, Ont. A native is still chasing his first Stanley Cup, so there’s that drive.
Gagner’s last deal was for one year and $850,000. Something similar makes sense for Leafs.
3. Trevor Lewis
Imagine Kyle Clifford who could still play regularly in the National Hockey League squad and you’d get something like Lewis, his former teammate on Clifford’s comeback with the Los Angeles Kings. Lewis is big, snarling, bodied and can be relied upon defensively. He’s one of those players you’re bound to notice most in the playoffs when the games turn sludge and thicken. Lewis’s 2022 resume with Calgary was two goals, three assists, 38 hits, 49 percent in a tie (it’s another right shot), and 56 percent in the projected goals division. There’s a reason he’s become a favorite of Daryl Sutter, his coach for years with the Kings and now, once again, with The Flames.
Lewis was going to bring a different dimension to the Leafs’ fourth streak, the kind of sharp element they hope to get with Simmonds and Clifford but ultimately didn’t get it last season. Lewis played a significant role in killing a sixth-placed penalty by the Flames and could do the same with the Leafs next season. He’s also earned two Stanley Cups for what he’s worth. It’s hard to see the flame and their coach let him go.
2. Andrew Cogliano
Cogliano may soon get his first real trophy here as a member of Avalanche. He’s still a Toronto boy who might want to give Spezza a routine by playing in the final days of his NHL career with his hometown team. Cogliano, a former first-round pick for the Oilers, was able to fill the role of a plumber with the Leafs. Delivered some cleverness, energy and fitness from the fourth streak – Cogliano threw over 100 hits during the regular season. Lines how he’s driving is buried in the defensive zone, just as the other Avs and Cogliano teams (ducks, stars, sharks) have done in recent years.
Cogliano has a lot of experience – over 1,100 regular season games, plus over 100 more in the playoffs. There’s a reason he brought Colorado on the trade deadline. Cogliano is the third choice forward in Avs PK and could play a similar role with the Leafs. While he won’t draw much insult – he had 16 points during the regular season – Cogliano will be someone Keefe can trust when the game is on the line.
1. Darren Helm
Guess who was there with the Avs as they stopped the Oilers in the final minutes of organizing in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals? you betcha. It was Helm, 35, who spent his entire career in Detroit before joining Colorado last summer on a one-year, $1 million deal. Clearly, Avs coach Jared Bednar trusts Helm to get the job done defensively. You can be sure Keefe will also find use for Helm as well, primarily as a fourth line engine that needs to be developed more useful. (Recent iterations haven’t provided anything definitive.) Helm is working towards 61 percent of the expected goals in the playoffs. His only post-season goal ended the Blues season.
Unlike most vets, the Leafs had to plug it away in the last fourth lines, Helm could still get the engine going. He’s probably the fastest guy in this group. He’d be well suited to killing the Leafs’ frantic penalty kick as a result. Helm won’t bring much humiliation, but it will provide all sorts of energy, some physique, and tons of competitive grease.
Statistics and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolution Hockey, puckIQ, Hockey Reference, and Cap Friendly
(Top photo: Kim Clement/USA Today)