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Jason Spezza will indeed be back with the Toronto Maple Leafs — just in a far different role.
After 19 seasons, the veteran who served the mentorship role better than any other in this era of Maple Leafs hockey — and who showed an unparalleled and, in the end, heartbreaking desire to win — has announced his retirement. He will join the Maple Leafs front office effective immediately as a special assistant to general manager Kyle Dubas.
It's a bittersweet development in many ways, as Spezza leaves his playing career behind without accomplishing his primary goal, which was to win a Stanley Cup. He left money, opportunity, milestones and minutes on the table over the final three seasons of his career, but happily earned the veteran minimum in his preferred final chapter, which was to chase a championship with his hometown team.
Certainly that pursuit will continue in management, and he will find new ways to contribute to a winner, but Spezza will be best remembered for the burning desire he displayed on the ice and the heartbreak he experienced as the end drew near.
There were fantastic moments over the course of Spezza's career and three-year run with the Leafs, but there were also controversial runs from his time in Toronto. Cracks in the foundation between Dubas and Mike Babcock seemed to spread wider when the former head coach questioned Spezza's ability before scratching him on the opening night of the 2019-20 season. Spezza was also placed on waivers during the 2020-21 season and needed to threaten an immediate retirement should one of the other 30 teams (at the time) look to add him to their roster.
But overall, Spezza had an immensely positive effect on the organization, and more specifically his teammates. What has seemed to hurt the players the most in their run of failures over the last few postseasons was their inability to win for the teammate they call "Vintage."
He did not wear a letter, but he was an unquestioned leader inside the room, speaking up in moments of need and assisting off the ice in other ways. Most notably, he led an initiative to pool money together for some of the minor-leaguers who weren't earning money during the pandemic.
Tavares gives credit to Spezza for the idea of pooling some funds together for the lower earners in the AHL: "As an organization, we try to take care of our own.'
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) April 25, 2021
He also delivered considerable value on his one-year deals, scoring 31 goals and 80 points in 183 games with the Maple Leafs. He always ranked high in CapFriendly's cost-per-point, scoring well beyond his value on the salary cap.
Spezza was around for longer, but appeared to have a far more impactful stay than other veterans brought in over the last few seasons to help Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, among others, along in their development. And that influence clearly extends toward management, with Dubas eager to work alongside Spezza in the front office.
While Spezza is without management experience, having devoted the last 25 years obsessing over the game, and more specifically his sticks, his value to management is his familiarity with the core, the coaching staff and the team's strengths and flaws.
It's hard to imagine there's anyone more capable of filling Dubas's potential blind spots in his continued efforts to build a winner.
Spezza finishes his career five points shy of 1000, scoring 363 goals and picking up 632 assists in 1,248 games. He took the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, went to two all-star games and finished as high as sixth in Hart Trophy voting.
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