What’s going on? Today the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that veteran center Jason Spezza would be a healthy scratch for the team’s home season opener against the Ottawa Senators. What makes this so odd to most people is that the Senators are Spezza’s former team. On top of that, Spezza signed a contract close to the NHL league’s minimum ($700,000). Given Spezza’s status, the decision to sit him seems odd to say the least.
There’s Almost Unanimous Disagreement with Babcock’s Decision
The jury didn’t take long to deliberate, and the verdict is in. First, Maple Leafs fans and commentators almost unanimously agree that Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock shouldn’t have benched Spezza for this particular game. Second, there’s some agreement that Babcock can be stubborn and that this was a way to make his point that he wasn’t a Spezza fan. Finally, some hockey commentators note that this choice is one of a number of several differences of opinions between the coach (Babcock) and the general manager (Kyle Dubas) about how the team should be built and that Babcock was telling Dubas that, as long as he was coach, this was HIS team.
Obviously, no one knows for certain what’s going on between the coach and the general manager. However, Babcock’s rationale that Spezza wasn’t a great penalty killer (he “has to get more comfortable”) seems pretty flimsy.
The crew on TSN 1050’s Leafs Lunch reacted with disagreement with the news Wednesday about Babcock’s decision. Former Maple Leafs player (TSN 1050 OverDrive co-host Jeff O’Neill) was quite clear, saying, “I quite frankly think it’s a joke. I mean Jason Spezza signed for peanuts to play here. He shows up early to help out with the young guys and then you put that in his face. And another thing going forward, in the next five years they’re going to have to look for players to sign for nothing just like Jason Spezza did. And when (potential signings) see that message, they might say, ‘screw that, why would I want to put myself through that?’
There’s a lot in that comment, especially if O’Neill is correct that future signees will see how the coach has treated a player with, perhaps, NHL Hall of Fame pedigree such as Spezza. That’s because the team currently needs to, and will continue to need, utilize what I have called an “upstairs/downstairs” roster. That is, the few really rich contracts the Maple Leafs have signed necessitate a large number of players who much sign bargain contracts if the team is to build an opening-day roster that fits under the salary cap’s upper limit).
Dubas needs players who are good, but he also needs these players to come cheaply. That’s exactly what Spezza did.
Former Maple Leafs defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (TSN 1050 host) made it clear that he didn’t agree with Babcock’s decision. He noted, “We’re talking about a guy who’s played 16 years in the league, over 1,000 games, hometown guy, playing against his former team the Ottawa Senators. I listen to Mike Babcock and he said he’s been clear and that him and Jason are on the same page and he understands that there’s a rotation, but c’mon, that rotation can wait one more game. Give Jason the feeling of coming home, playing for the Maple Leafs. Play this game and if you want to make that rotation you do it Friday night in Columbus in a game that will draw less attention to what the attention the Maple Leafs are going to get tonight.”
Finally, TSN Scouting Director Craig Button echoed the same feelings about the decision. He said clearly, “Bottom line is it’s really simple, Jason Spezza should be playing tonight.”
Button added, in regard to Babcock’s note about Spezza needing to become more “comfortable” killing penalties, “Mitch Marner kills penalties. John Tavares kills penalties. (Alex) Kerfoot kills penalties. I’m going to be really straightforward here, that is an unacceptable rationale for scratching Jason Spezza.”
Memories of Babcock Sitting Mike Modano
The TSN group remembered Babcock sitting future Hall of Famer Mike Modano when he was the head coach with the Detroit Red Wings. What was particularly problematic about Modano’s being a healthy scratch in that particular game was it was the final game of a season and it would have been his 1,500th game. It was, as it turned out, the final game of Modano’s career.
Mike Commodore criticized Babcock at the time for making Modano sit instead of allowing him to reach 1,500 games, and he hasn’t forgotten. Today (October 2, 2019), Commodore tweeted (see below) about the situation.
Where Do We Sit at NHLTradeRumors.com?
Since training camp, it’s been pretty clear Spezza isn’t one of Babcock’s favorite players – putting it nicely. Given Babcock’s proclivity for stubborn behavior, one might have guessed the relationship would become rocky. However, this decision seems to surpass rocky and move into either (a) mean-spirited or (b) re-establishing who’s the “real” boss of the team.
If it’s the former, that simply suggests Babcock is not a player’s coach. I’m guessing that everyone in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room would have rooted for Spezza to play – even Nick Shore, the person who’s replacing him in the line-up. That’s what good teammates do.
If it’s the latter, that could be worse. It suggests there’s internal friction in the team’s organizational hierarchy. Rumor is that Babcock wasn’t happy with Spezza’s signing. If so, then he’s saying to everyone – including his general manager – “It’s My team!” And, Babcock is acting against his general manager.
Here at NHLTradeRumors.com, we’re unhappy Babcock is sitting Spezza. It seems too close to what Babcock did to Modano in Detroit’s final game of the season a few years ago. We’re also interested to see what this decision means about the functioning hierarchy within the organization. The players, including Nick Shore, have to have an issue with this decision.
What are the chances a new captain will knock on Babcock’s door and say, “Hey, Mike, can we talk about your decision?” Perhaps that’s wishful thinking, and why would Babcock listen to the team’s captain anyway. After all, that person stole the captaincy away from him.
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