Toronto Maple Leafs centre Jason Spezza is getting the last laugh over former coach Mike Babcock.
Everyone remembers the outrage from fans last season when former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock benched Jason Spezza for the home opener after the veteran forward had signed here in the off-season. Here we had a veteran who chose to sign with his hometown team and even did so at the league minimum of $700,000, being benched for seemingly no justifiable reason in his first game.
From comments that Babcock made during the pre-season regarding Spezza, fans and reporters alike could tell that Babcock was not 100% sold on having Spezza in Toronto. The comment that always stood out the most for me was, “He’s trying to figure it out if he’s interested, and we’re doing the same.”
I don’t think Spezza would have signed if he wasn’t interested, let alone at the league minimum. By saying, “and we’re doing the same,” Babcock acknowledges the fact that he is not on board with having Spezza on his team.
To make matters worse, it seems like the home opener benching was a last-minute decision because Spezza had his wife, kids, and other family members in attendance to see him make his debut with his hometown Leafs.
Spezza Misused By Babcock
Playing under Babcock, the veteran forward was given only about 11 minutes of ice time per night. That was a drop of two minutes from what he was playing in Dallas the two seasons before he arrived in Toronto. He was even a healthy scratch on six occasions during October.
Despite this, he let his play on the ice speak for him. He registered three goals and four assists for seven points in 13 games. That would, however, not make much difference in the eyes of the coach. Babcock seemed steadfast in using Spezza sparingly. (espn.com).
After the Leafs fired Babcock and replaced him with Keefe, the shackles came off for the 16-year veteran. In his first three games under Keefe, Spezza registered two assists. He went on to collect 18 points in 45 games under Keefe.
Shortly before the NHL season was cut short due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Spezza seemed to be reaching another level in his play. He was starting to pick up steam and looked like he was playing more like the Spezza from 2016-17 when he had 50 points in 68 games.
I’m not saying he was on pace for 50 points. He wasn’t, but he was starting to play better than expected. I think playing under Keefe rejuvenated him, and it was beginning to show on a nightly basis.
Looking Ahead To 2020-21 Season
With a new season comes new opportunities. I think Keefe is going to give him every opportunity to succeed this season. The way I see it, he would not be with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now if Babcock was still the coach.
This season he will likely get plenty of playing time with the newest veteran on the team, Joe Thornton. Even at 41 years-old, Thornton is a great playmaker, and Spezza could benefit from having someone like that passing him the puck.
The two might even get playing time on the team’s second power-play unit. That will present even more opportunities for the Toronto native to succeed.
If he is given the chance to play in the home opener and if he has a productive season, then the last laugh will surely belong to Spezza.