For Better or Worse, Jason Spezza is Loyal to the Toronto Maple Leafs

Two weeks after a heartbreaking first-round exist, Jason Spezza is ready to help out his team on the ice, off the ice and with their calculators.
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Two days after the Toronto Maple Leafs endured another disappointing opening-round playoff exist, Jason Spezza expressed his desire to come back.

Two weeks and a conversation with his family later, the veteran will return for the 2021-22 season.

"I'm pretty excited to be back. It's a great opportunity to continue to play on a great team."

Spezza becomes the first pending (maybe only?) free agent to return to Toronto. For the third year in a row, Spezza signed a one-year contract at the NHL minimum. He will receive a $50,000 raise this year, due to the CBA raising the minimum salary in 2021-22 from $700,000 to $750,000.

There's no question that the 38-year-old is deserving of more money after scoring 10 goals and adding 20 assists in 54 regular-season games.

Where Spezza really showed his value was in the playoffs. He finished second in team scoring (three goals) and in a tie for third in points (five). While forwards like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner combined for just one goal in seven games.

But for Spezza, a player who has grossed over $87 million in NHL salary before joining the Leafs in 2019-20, money stopped becoming a driving factor.

The lure to win and play for his hometown team continues to shine through.

"The chase of the cup is at the forefront of my mind daily and anything I can do to help the team acquire better players, that's kind of why I just take the league minimum."

To management, that's music to their ears as the Maple Leafs under severe cap constraints. According to PuckPedia.com, Toronto has 15 main roster players committed to their roster occupying a cap hit of approximately $69,744,783. That leaves the team with $11,755,217 in space to sign a minimum of five players for a 20-man roster. They would likely want to get that number up to the maximum of 23 players, but 21 or 22 players is more realistic.

They may also get some cap relief in July when the Seattle Kraken select a Maple Leafs player in the Expansion Draft.

In the meantime, the Leafs have to make some hard decisions.

Zach Hyman doesn't appear to be ready to take a hometown discount. The 29-year-old Toronto native is in line for a big raise from his $2.25 million average annual value (AAV) over the last four seasons. 

Hyman had 15 goals and 18 assists in 43 games last season. Comparables like the deal Josh Anderson signed with the Montreal Canadiens in October suggest a long-term deal in the neighborhood of $5.5 million in AAV.

The Leafs will also likely need to spend on a backup goaltender to Jack Campbell. There will be some savings there with former No. 1 Frederik Andersen likely to earn less than the $5 million he earned last season should he return to Toronto.

The Maple Leafs will no doubt look to the NHL-minimum veterans again to help fill the void. In October, they signed veteran Joe Thornton to a league-minimum one-year, $700k deal. Wayne Simmonds signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal. While both had their moments, it wasn't the same bang-for-their-buck as players like Spezza.

But after this season's disappointment, does Toronto have that same lure?

Spezza had to endure a benching from former head coach Mike Babcock in his first season. The disappointment of how this past season still angers the veteran just a couple of weeks later.

But he's ready to put that aside. At his season-ending availability, Spezza cited the team's training and performance staff with the time they put into him to be ready to perform. If the Leafs want to lure more players, there should be a concerted effort to make Spezza part of the recruiting process.

Every season he seems steadfast in his desire to win, and if that means helping the team keep players or get better, he'll do it.

"I'll be honest, all I care about is winning," Spezza said. "If I could take less (money), I would."

Finding one Spezza is a challenge, but finding a few more? That's a very tough mountain the Leafs continue to climb.

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