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Toronto Maple Leafs: Where Do the New Lines Leave Jason Spezza?

After John Tavares broke his finger, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made wholesale changes to the team’s four lines. What are those changes? Specifically, what’s happening with Jason Spezza?

As the Chinese character for crisis [危机机会] suggests, with crisis also comes opportunity. Specifically, with John Tavares’ broken finger a number of changes have been made to the line-up. It’s a problem for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it’s also an opportunity to see what the team has or could be without its captain playing.

The new-look line combinations, as per practice this morning were

Wholesale Changes In the Works

There’s no doubt that head coach Mike Babcock has taken an opportunity to see what players can lift themselves to more prominent positions on the team. The top line of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson remain intact. However, the second line – other than Mitch Marner – will be completely new.

Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev will join Marner to create a new-look second unit. That’s a promotion both for Mikheyev and Kerfoot. Although Babcock has to be pretty sure what his new third-line center Jason Spezza can do, it looks as if he’s more interested to see what Mikheyev can do when he plays with an offensive force like Marner. As a result, Spezza will become the third-line center, partnering with sparkplug Trevor Moore and recently-demoted Kasperi Kapanen.

Really, from my perspective, this second line will work well if Marner goes back to being the Marner of last season. I believe he’s changed his approach this season. Certainly, he’s scoring – with nine points in eight games; however, he seems to be seeking to shoot before he seeks to distribute. He’ll get his goals regardless, but I liked the pass-as-first-option Marner more than the shoot-first Marner.

The fourth line also has undergone a shift. As of this morning’s practice, Nick Shore will be centering Frederik Gauthier and Dmytro Timashov. For my money, that line has been really strong this season and I’m looking to see what they can do. I honestly remember only one game where the fourth line looked outplayed. At other times, they seem to cycle the puck well and keep the opposition hemmed into their own defensive end of the ice.

Where Do These Changes Leave Jason Spezza?

As I have noted in other posts, Babcock has been critiqued for stubbornly refusing to make major changes. However, that’s not what I’ve seen early this season. Babcock might have done a minor tweak rather than change almost everything. I’m in accord with Babcock’s moves, although I am a bit surprised by them.

The easy tweak would have been to simply switch centers – to replace Tavares with Spezza. It isn’t as if they’re clones, but they do share similarities. Both are proficient in the faceoff circle. Both have good hand-eye coordination. Both see the ice and think the game well. And, although both are proficient skaters, neither is a burner. Each player relies more on smarts than speed.

I have two thoughts about Spezza. My first thought is that, by not moving him up to take Tavares’ place, it shows that Babcock isn’t yet confident Spezza has the skills to help the team. This is no longer about killing penalties, which was Babcock’s stated reason for not playing Spezza in the home opener. This is about a more central offensive role on the team – something in Spezza’s skillset that he has honed for many seasons. [A corresponding case in point was Patrick Marleau’s first-game success with the San Jose Sharks after he was quickly signed as a needed replacement. Sometimes players – regardless of age or stage of their career – can perform as Marleau did. There’s no reason to believe Spezza might not have had similar success.]

But Babcock has been reluctant to play Spezza in any kind of regular role early in the season, and his moves here might be read within that context as well. Although I believe – and I say this because this would be how I think – Babcock is more interested in rewarding Mikheyev and Kerfoot for their production rather than anything about Spezza.

Spezza Has a Chance to Prove His Value to the Team

Where does that leave Spezza? It seems to me that the crisis of the team represents the opportunity for Spezza. This is Spezza’s best chance so far to impact the Maple Leafs. Even given what’s happened, it’s hard to feel sorry for him when he has two speedy, hard-working wingers he can partner with to create offensive opportunities.

In fact, Babcock told reporters the defensive load would be picked up by Matthews and Kerfoot. If so, and there’s no reason to doubt it, Spezza would be free to engage the third-line in more offensive chances against what might be lesser competition. In short, it’s a chance for Spezza to lead a line that has some offensive skill.

Here’s looking forward to seeing how these new-look line combinations will perform in a game. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Spezza in a more-productive role. I wish him well.

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