How can Jason Spezza convince Mike Babcock he’s willing to embrace a limited role with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season?
"Oh, I just have to play the game," the 36-year-old said. "I've played one exhibition game so far so it's important I go out and have a good game today. Our line wants to try and build a little bit of chemistry and it's important for us to have a good game today."
Babcock raised eyebrows early in training camp by suggesting the veteran centre needed to prove he could be a good fit in Toronto. The coach is doing his part to make sure the pair is on the same page.
"He's different than other guys here, in my opinion, because I'm going to have a conversation every day, see how he's doing," Babcock said. "I think he's earned that just by the kind of person, the kind of player he is and we'll just keep talking."
Spezza and Frederik Gauthier rotated between centre and the wing at Saturday's morning skate.
"We got him and Goat both playing centre on that one line and they'll figure it out," Babcock explained. "I'm going to give them lots of D-zone starts and he'll play on the power play and the penalty kill and we’ll just keep going."
The dual centre-winger spot isn't new to Spezza. After 16 NHL seasons, not much is.
"I've kind of played that way my whole career," he said. "In Ottawa I played with (Milan) Michalek for a long time, we just didn’t talk about it, but he played down low at certain times. In Dallas, last year in playoffs, I played with Justin Dowling, we played the exact same way. I think it's a pretty common thing, actually, that goes on. Some of my best years with Alfie (Daniel Alfredsson), he played low a lot. It's something that's maybe coming to light a little more with the analytics and the face-offs on the proper sides and all that, but it's really something I've done for a long time."
Spezza liked the way he and Gauthier worked together in Friday’s practice putting together some longer cycle shifts.
"It's just a matter of getting up to speed with the guy you're doing it with, because there's little switches throughout the game that you want to work on," Spezza said. "So, Freddie seems to have great hockey sense and the quicker we can get on the same page the faster we will look as a line and the more we'll play in their end."
As for the special teams side of things, Spezza didn't kill penalties consistently during five seasons in Dallas, but is ready to embrace that task in Toronto.
"It's something I did a lot of before so it's just kind of getting the roots down and figuring out the details of what the coaching staff wants and then just playing and getting your timing back," he said. "We're one exhibition game in and the timing and everything isn't where you want it to be so it’s important to get yourself up to speed."
Spezza's high hockey IQ should allow him to learn the intricacies of Babcock’s system quickly. During the summer BioSteel Camp, Tyler Seguin described Spezza as a "hockey nerd."
"I like the game," the Toronto native said. "I enjoy it. It's fun for me to come out here. I love the challenge of trying to be an older player playing in the league. I just enjoy getting out here with the guys."
"It means everything to him," said John Tavares. "He obviously chose here, which should say a lot to our group, because of his belief in our talent and the opportunity we have in front of us with a strong team that can contend. I know this is a great opportunity for him and he wants to maximize it."
Tavares trains with Spezza in the summer.
"No question he's had a great career and he wants to cap it off the right way," Tavares said. "I know he still loves the game as much as he did when I started training with him a number of years ago and wants to play as long as he can. He lives and breathes it and it's fun to be around that."
Spezza’s contribution this season is expected to extend beyond the ice as he takes on the mantle of oldest player on the team from Patrick Marleau.
"He's a great guy," said 22-year-old Mitch Marner. "I've talked to him a lot. Kind of reminds me a little bit of Patty as that veteran presence, that guy who's been around for a while and knows how hard it is to win and I think that's something he's preaching to all of us, 'Come in every day and make sure you’re ready to work.'"
Marner grew up a Leafs fan and cheered against Spezza and the Senators in the heated Battle of Ontario rivalry.
"I just remember how good he was in those games and how much of a threat he was constantly on the ice," said Marner. "I remember just how fun it was watching him and he controlled the play and how he just put fear into other people’s eyes and it’s kind of crazy still seeing him doing it today."
Spezza, one of the better face-off men in the league throughout his career, gave Marner a crash course at the dot after the morning skate wrapped up, winning six of seven puck drops.
"He destroyed me," said Marner, who took only 11 face-offs last season. "I got one of them. He was impressed with my one win. I want to get more used to taking draws. I want to be more useful in D-zone, O-zone at taking draws so I'm just trying to learn and that's a guy you can definitely learn from. His percentage over the years speaks for itself so he's a guy that I'll try and get some pointers off of."
Spezza won 58% of face-offs last season, tied for first among those who took at least 100 draws. That ability to win face-offs could be a big asset to the Leafs late in games and on the penalty kill, especially with Zach Hyman out for the first month of the season.
"He's always had so much leverage and strength and being a right-hand shot, which is a little more rare, just makes it so much harder to battle and compete against a guy like that," said Tavares. "So, it's just getting to know the way he uses his leverage, how he puts his stick down, his timing, how he plays the angles and how he approaches his opponents too, because a lot of it is a chess game."
Saturday night will be the second chance for Kasperi Kapanen to build some in-game chemistry with Tavares and Marner. The fleet-footed Finn has switched sides from right wing to left wing to fill the void left by Hyman in Toronto's top six.
"Right now it's just getting used to it, to be honest," Kapanen said. "I just got to get used to playing on that left side and entering the zone and making plays. You got to be careful when you’re getting the puck on your backhand from the D-man in your defensive zone, but it’s still hockey and I’m trying to get used to it and every day feels a bit better."
Kapanen, who played his off wing infrequently with the AHL's Marlies before securing a full-time job with the Leafs, did score a goal in Tuesday's exhibition opener in St. John’s.
"These pre-season games are really important for me, especially now that I’m on the left side, kind of getting a feel for it, so it’s very important," Kapanen said.
The initial reviews from his new linemates are positive.
"He plays a very predictable game," observed Tavares, "not to say that he's not a creative player, but with that speed and his ability to put so much pressure on the opponent it gives me a really, really good understanding of the way he plays."
"He brings a lot of speed," said Marner. "He scares a lot of defencemen with that ... we got to play with Kappy and (Andreas Johnsson) a little bit last year when Hyman was out so we got a little bit of chemistry with those guys."
As the Leafs hit the midway point of the pre-season schedule, the battle for jobs is coming into focus.
"When you think about it, camp starts to get long," Babcock said, "and usually what happens is the guys who feel like they should be here keep getting better and the guys that think they shouldn't be here, they start to fall off. It's fatigue time now, there's no question about it, both mentally and physically, and so it will start to separate itself, I think it has already."
Rasmus Sandin has earned big-time praise the last couple of days from Babcock and seems to have an inside track for a job on defence. Up front, KHL import Ilya Mikheyev has impressed and appears destined for a top-nine role.
"He plays a lot like (Pavel) Datsyuk," said Auston Matthews following Friday's game. "He's got that reach and he's kind of got a similar paddle on him, uses a long stick and he's really lanky. He's really shifty, strong on the puck, really good on his edges so I was really impressed, especially that third period.”
Babcock pointed out there's a reason why it takes time for Mikheyev to find his way in games.
"He's still trying to figure out the size of the rink and each game he's played (he) hasn't been quite as good in the first, but he's gotten better and better," Babcock said. "He can really skate, he's very intelligent, heavy on the puck, he can shoot it, make plays."
Mikheyev, 24, registered 45 points in 62 games with Omsk Avangard last season.
Cody Ceci (maintenance day) missed practice.
Projected Leafs line-up for tonight’s game in Buffalo:
Power play units at Saturday’s morning skate:
Leafs lines at Saturday’s practice: