TORONTO – Jason Spezza hasn’t missed a regular-season opener since becoming a full-time NHL player in 2003-04, but that 15-season streak will grind to a halt Wednesday when the veteran is a healthy scratch for the Maple Leafs’ home opener against Ottawa.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Spezza said after the Leafs’ morning skate at Scotiabank Arena. “[Head coach Mike Babcock and I] have talked about what we have to do and what the process to getting in is. He’s the coach and he decides the lineup. I have to get to up to speed with what he wants.”
Spezza seemingly had the inside track on Toronto’s fourth-line centre job throughout the preseason, right up until Babcock told journeyman Nick Shore on Tuesday that he would be in the lineup instead of Spezza on Wednesday.
Babcock said the decision ultimately boiled down to special teams work. The Leafs coach leans on his fourth-line players as penalty killers, and doesn’t feel Spezza is ready to excel there.
“We’re giving Spez a little more time on the penalty kill,” Babcock said. “He wants to penalty kill for us. We need him to do that, so he’ll be in the next game [on Friday against Columbus]. This buys him more time, more reps, and we’ll get lots of reps on it. We’re just trying to stay with that the best we can.”
Starting this season on the sidelines isn’t what Spezza envisioned when he signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with his hometown Leafs as a free agent on July 1.
The contract represented a massive pay cut for Spezza coming out of a four-year, $30 million pact with the Dallas Stars, and he acknowledged it would be an adjustment to play a more defensive role in Toronto than he was used to. Yet Spezza also described the Leafs as “a good fit [where I can be] a good presence in the room to help guys out” and projected he’d be “a good complementary piece for all the young talent they have there.”
Spezza also has a long history with the Leafs’ opponent on Wednesday, although he denied that factored into his frustration about not playing. The Senators drafted Spezza second overall in 2001, and he served as team captain in 2013-14 during the last of his 11 seasons with the club.
Out of the gate at least, Spezza’s experience playing in 1,065 NHL games and amassing 915 points (332 goals, 583 assists) isn’t what Babcock thinks the Leafs need. While that’s difficult to digest, Spezza is keeping his focus on future opportunities.
“I need to get more reps on the PK to earn that comfort level with [Babcock],” he said. “I haven’t killed a lot the last few years. Prior to that I killed more, but my role is changing and with changing you have to learn. You have to adapt and you have to get better. So I’m going to do all those things and when I get in, make sure I’m ready. But it’s obviously disappointing; you want to play to open the season.”
While scratching Spezza came as a surprise to some, there had been signs throughout training camp of a possible disconnect between him and Babcock. After Spezza’s first exhibition game on Sept. 17, Babcock assessed the 36-year-old with a challenge of sorts, claiming that, “he’s trying to figure out if he’s interested, and we’re doing the same.”
It was a far cry from the ringing endorsements Babcock often bestows on coveted veterans. But in the case of Wednesday’s opener, Babcock tried to downplay the decision as part of a grander plan that he and Spezza have been working through together.
“I’ve talked to him quite a bit about this and what we’re doing, so we’re on the same page moving ahead,” he said. “We’re going to have a rotation on few guys here this first little bit until we figure out what we’re doing.”
Spezza confirmed that Babcock has relayed what’s expected of him to get in the lineup.
“I think we’re pretty clear,” Spezza said. “He’s been good with talking to me. It is what it is.”
For Shore, being tapped for Toronto’s opener is a chance to play his first NHL game in more than a year. The 27-year-old spent last season with the KHL’s Magnitogorsk Metallurg, producing 16 points (three goals, 13 assists) in 37 games. From 2014-18, Shore bounced between the Los Angeles Kings, Senators and Calgary Flames, appearing in 236 games with 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists).
What appeals to Babcock most about Shore is how well he’ll fit Toronto’s scheme on a line with Frederik Gauthier and Dmytro Timashov.
“He can win faceoffs, he can penalty kill, he stands in the right spots,” Babcock reeled off. “He’s done it before in the league. He’s a good man; he just does his job.”
“Shore's smart with the puck, poised with it, can make some plays and play well defensively,” added Gauthier. “He’s a smart player, so he’ll fit in easily with us.”
Shore had immediately jumped at the Leafs’ offer of a one-year, $700,000 contract when his KHL season ended last summer, but was relaxed throughout camp about his chances of breaking through. Now that this moment has arrived, Shore plans to embrace every second.
“Once I heard [Toronto wanted me], I was ready to go,” he said. “I just wanted to play my game. Try not to worry about too many things. There are a lot of moving variables, but just tried to worry about [my] own game and, for me, that’s playing a strong 200-foot game and see where it goes.”
Maple Leafs lines vs. Ottawa