A rink rat often found on the practice ice long after his teammates have hit the showers, Jason Spezza has always joked he’d play hockey for free.
With all the ticket requests about to come his way, he might just have to next season.
The veteran centre and local product signed a one-year contract worth US$700,000 with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday as NHL free agency opened.
“I’m playing for the love of the game this year, that’s for sure,” Spezza joked on a conference call with reporters.
But don’t feel too bad for the 36-year-old unrestricted free agent, who according to capfriendly.com has made nearly US$87.5-million in his career.
This move was about coming home, getting a chance to win with the team he grew up cheering for and potentially extending his career beyond 2019-20.
And the conversations he had with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Mike Babcock during the league’s speaking period ahead of free agency clinched his decision.
“I was looking for a good fit,” said Spezza, who grew up in Mississauga. “I felt this has a really good chance to work out and I could be a good complementary piece to this team and hopefully get us to a point where we can get over the edge and win a Cup.
“It made sense on a lot of different levels for me.”
Dubas agreed with Spezza, saying that it seems as though the veteran forward is the right piece of the puzzle for the youthful Leafs.
“Just seemed like the perfect fit in terms of what he can bring in terms of his experience,” Dubas said at a news conference. “He sort of lived through, early in his career in Ottawa, a team with very high expectations, a very good, young talented team with a strong core.”
Drafted second over all by the Senators in 2001, Spezza got a taste of the epic playoff battles between Toronto and Ottawa, including the most recent time the Leafs advanced to the second round in 2004 – at the expense of their provincial rivals.
“Toronto was definitely a team that, when I first got to Ottawa, was definitely a bit of a mental block,” Spezza said. “I was a young player, so I was little bit naive to some of the history that had maybe gone on before me, but the rivalry was big.
“I understand the rivalry more than anyone. I knew that we would get up a little more to play the Leafs.”
Spezza has recorded 332 goals and 915 points in 1,065 career regular-season games with Ottawa and the Dallas Stars. He’s also added 70 points (25 goals, 45 assists) in 80 playoff games.
Spezza registered eight goals and 27 points in 76 games in 2018-19 in Dallas, where he made US$7.5-million each of the past four seasons.
Spezza, who should help replace the veteran leadership of the since-departed Patrick Marleau, added three goals and two assists in 11 playoff games, but will now switch to blue and white.
“It doesn’t seem real, to be honest,” Spezza said. “My family’s very excited about it. I grew up a Leafs fan, as probably every kid in Toronto does. Dougie Gilmour, Wendel Clark were my guys.
“When you get drafted by Ottawa and play 12 years there you probably don’t think that’s ever going to happen. It’s your biggest rivalry, but the way things shook out I went to Dallas. Now, coming back here is something I’m really excited about.”
Spezza joins a roster that’s already deep down the middle with Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Nazem Kadri.
“I’m going to be a complementary guy,” he said. “There will be times when I play in different spots.”
Spezza is looking at a bottom-six role with Toronto, and is fine with doing whatever Babcock asks of him.
“There’s some talent, there’s lots of speed,” Spezza said. “The league is about depth now, and you see the teams that played to the end. You needed all four lines.”
Spezza was scratched for a couple of games early in the playoffs this spring with Dallas – something that didn’t sit well with the two-time all-star.
“I definitely have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I took it on as a challenge.”
A big point producer most of his career, Spezza added that he’s looking forward to learning about different aspects of the game from Babcock.
“He’s willing to work with me and help me transition,” Spezza said. “Coming to play for a guy as demanding as him could help me play a little bit longer.”
Meanwhile, the Leafs bid farewell to veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey and depth forward Tyler Ennis after both unrestricted free agents signed with the Senators. Hainsey, 38, got a one-year deal worth US$3.5-million, while Ennis, 29, is signed for next season at a salary cap hit of US$800,000.
Toronto also swung a trade about three hours before free agency opened, shipping defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and forward Connor Brown to Ottawa for blueliner Cody Ceci in a six-player deal that should help the salary-cap-squeezed Leafs in their efforts to sign restricted free-agent winger Mitch Marner.
Zaitsev was on the books for US$4.5-million for the next five years, while Brown is scheduled to make US$2.1-million in 2019-20. Ceci, a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, made US$4.3-million last season and can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.