Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs: Evaluating Jason Spezza

The Toronto Maple Leafs add veteran centre Jason Spezza to the mix. He may come at a minuscule cap hit but his numbers look anything but.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs made a handful of small signings when the free agent window opened up on July 1st. The most notable of these moves was adding 36 year old centre, Jason Spezza. Spezza signed a 1 year, $700,000 deal for league minimum salary. That’s a very cheap price to pay for centre of Spezza’s ilk, even given his decline over the past couple years. Spezza is however a very rich man, with his career total earnings in the NHL considered to be over $85M, his current focus seems to be on silverware. The 5-time 30-goal scorer, who hails from Mississauga, Ontario (also home of John Tavares), credited his love of the game and desire to win a cup as his reasoning for coming home. Whilst the deal he signed comes with absolutely no risk there are concerns about how much Spezza can truly offer the Leafs.

There is no denying Spezza was a 1st line centre in his prime, however, given the Leafs depth down the middle there are questions surrounding where exactly Spezza fits. He spoke with media following the signing of his contract and stated Babcock sees him as a good complementary fit for the team. He stated Babcock will likely give him time on both special teams and as a bottom 6 forward at 5 on 5.

The Numbers

Although Spezza spoke on needing to acclimate to a different role as bottom 6 forward, his minutes have slowly diminished through the few past few seasons. Over the past two years Spezza has been down around 13 minutes of ice time a night. Even in this diminished role he still contributes as a positive possession player for his team when he is on the ice. Over his career Spezza is a 52.5% Corsi (+3.0%rel.) and a 51.7% Fenwick (+0.9%rel.). Most impressive is that his Corsi rel. last season matched his career average whilst his Fenwick rel. was more than double his career average +2.0%. This is a positive sign that whilst he may not be producing the points he once was, Spezza certainly isn’t being outplayed by opposition matchups.

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Spezza has also never been a below 50% face-off man in his entire career. In fact, last season Spezza led his team (58.2% FO) second only to Martin Hanzal who only appeared in 7 games. Whilst the above stats show that Spezza was a positive possession player for Dallas and his line outshot and out-chanced the opposition at 5 on 5, they didn’t outscore them. Spezza was a -13 for 2018-19, however, there is pause for optimism with this stat. While on the ice his team shot as a measly 6.1% shooting percentage, well below the teams average of 8.3% and even further below his career average of 9.3%. The fact that Spezza experienced a heavy dip in both his personal SH% and his teams on ice SH% is a positive. Assuming this was just an off year and that Spezza’s shot hasn’t declined by such a large factor, this should move back closer to his career average. This is the cause for why his actual +/- doesn’t match his expected +/- in the table below.

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Special teams

As previously mentioned, Spezza made reference to the fact that Babcock saw him fitting in on both special teams. The losses of Kadri and Ennis on the power play will free up a couple spots. Spezza mentioned in his press conference that he has played on the man advantage his entire career and feels very comfortable there. That was evident last season with him being the 4th highest PP producer on his team behind only Seguin, Radulov and Klingberg. Given Spezza’s ability from the face-off dot and his playmaking ability on Dallas’ PP from last season, he would be a welcome addition for his ability to win draws in the o-zone and move the puck.

Spezza also commented saying he would be used on all special teams. Whilst Spezza was a valuable part of Dallas’ PP, he hasn’t really ever been used on their PK. Spezza’s possession numbers however are pretty positive, he’s great on the draw, he’s 6’3 and takes up a lot of space. He is also a veteran of the game who plays a pretty sound 2-way game which should lend itself towards him being a successful penalty killer. These are all critical skills which certainly help if what he says is true and he does feature there for the Leafs.

Final Thoughts

Exactly where Spezza features in the lineup for the 2019-20 season at this point is unclear. The Leafs clearly have their top two centres sorted. Outside of this there is a possibility of Alexander Kerfoot or even William Nylander (unlikely) playing the third line centre role. Spezza will almost certainly play one of either the 3rd or 4th line centre slots. His ability to move up and down is a huge improvement over what the Leafs had last year in Freddy Gauthier if he fills the bottom centre spot. If he does player the 3rd line, hopefully this means the Leafs will run the Matthews and Tavares line out for 20 minutes each per night.

The leadership and role specific game that Jason Spezza can bring to the Toronto Maple Leafs is huge. The fact he brings all this at a league minimum cap hit is even bigger. The team Dubas looks to be assembling for this year may just be better than last years which almost all of us considered impossible a few weeks ago. This season should be a very exciting one and hopefully Spezza can contribute to help the Leafs get over the first round hump in the playoffs.


Featured Image Photo Credit – Josh Tessler


IIHF Worlds: How Will The John Tavares Injury Affect Canada?

With the injury to star player John Tavares, is Canada’s World Championship dreams over before the tournament has even begun?


Less than 24 hours before he was to take part in Canada’s first game against Finland, the World Championships are over for John Tavares. An oblique injury has forced him back to Toronto, leaving Canada scrambling for a replacement. The question is, can he can be replaced, and how does it effect Canada’s quest for gold in the long and short term? 

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The short-term consequence:

First off, Canada will have to make due with what they have against Finland. No replacement will be ready in time and it will probably be a few games before any replacement is ready to play. Tavares had played with the team and gotten some time to familiarize himself with the European ice and get over the jetlag. Obviously the replacement will have to be available quickly to minimize the loss. And even in that case they will probably play a few games before that happens.

For Canada’s initial few games the solution will have to come internally. The obvious solution would be to simply add Tyler Bertuzzi into Tavares spot with Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone on the first line. Not a bad line at all, but the center depth doesn’t look as imposing with Tavares absent.  This isn’t a knock on Bertuzzi. He is a solid National Hockey League player, but he just isn’t a superstar like Tavares. The more complex solution is to shuffle the lines. Playing a veteran like Kyle Turris on the first line and then having Bertuzzi play with Anthony Mantha and Dylan Strome on the third line would seem more realistic. 

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The long-term consequence:

Luckily for Canada the first real test is their last game of the preliminaries against the United States on the May 21. You could argue that the game against Finland tomorrow could be a challenge, but given the lackluster Finnish roster I doubt Canada will drop points. The softer start will allow the Tavares replacement time to settle in to the tournament and potentially the first line center spot before any major damage has happened.

However, taking away the first line center on any team will hurt them. Canada is no different, especially with a lacking of depth down the middle. Another point to remember is that the team was built around Tavares.
Players like Stone, Marchessault, Sam Reinhart and Sean Couturier are going to have to lift the offense. Can they do it? Absolutely!
But if the replacement isn’t a first line center, then we might see a major weakness for Canada. Especially when up against a team like Sweden or Russia, considering how unsteady they have looked defensively in the leadup to the Worlds.


Who can replace him?

So far, we have heard very little from Canada’s camp about a potential replacement for Tavares. Team Canada general manager Jason Botterill has his work cut out for him and I’m willing to bet he is working the phones to the best of his abilities, to persuade a superstar to join up as fast as possible. But as of the time of writing this, we have been left in silence. Therefore, the next part will be purely  speculations, so take it with a pinch of salt.

Who can replace Tavares? Very few is the short answer, but Canada must find one and they’ve got a few options.

One of them being Matt Duchene, who has been a part of many Championships and tournaments for Canada. A loyal servant to the cause and having recently been knocked out of the NHL playoffs, he would be a great fit for Canada. Red hot from the playoffs, Duchene notched 10 points in 10 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets and enjoyed a resurgence of sorts this season. He is also the most likely if I’m to guess on the replacement.

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Another replacement could be Tyler Seguin from the Dallas Stars. He won a Stanley cup with Boston in 2011 and a potential “second part” to the triple-gold club could be very tempting for Seguin, who has never represented Canada at a major international event. And yes, I know he played in the World Cup of Hockey but that was a preseason event. This could be the time for Seguin to join, and if he does Canada’s offense is back to looking fantastic. Especially if it’s with Duchene.

Some other names to throw in could be Derick Brassard, Tyson Jost, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Jason Spezza.

Statistics Provided By Elite Prospects

Featured Image Photo Credit: Nikos Michals

Dallas Stars

Dallas Stars: A Different Kind Of March Madness

I Want To Believe The Dallas Stars Will Be In The Final Four Of The Stanley Cup Playoffs This Year. I Really Do. But The Faksa Tell Me Otherwise. 

As I sat down to do some research on the Dallas Stars, I did so with the full intention of coming up with reasons why they will make a long run in this year’s National Hockey League playoffs. I’ve watched some of their games recently and have slowly been convincing myself that this team is a dark horse that can make some noise this spring. 

Look, we all want to be that person that makes the bold prediction to  our friends or followers that Team X, even though it doesn’t look that great, is going to go surprise everyone and “run the table” as they say. We all hear the “Watch out for so-and-so” comments, or “My money is on these guys to surprise” proclamations everyday of our lives.

And I’ve been thinking the last week or so that the Stars were going to be my long shot pick. And why not? As I touched on last week here on Puck77, recent history suggests that it’s not uncommon for a team ranked in the bottom half of the playoff qualifiers making it all the way to the Stanley Cup final. 

But Dallas, you are making it very difficult for me to put up an argument on your behalf. 

They Are In The Mix

It’s not like the Stars don’t belong in the conversation with the other Cup contenders. They only sit five points back of everyone’s sexy pick of the last calender year, the Vegas Golden Knights. But Dallas also is only four points better than the Florida Panthers, who no one is confusing with their state rival and Stanley Cup favourite Tampa Bay Lightning. 

They sit a mere two points back of the third-place St. Louis Blues in the Central division with 10 games to go. Add to that the fact that of those 10 remaining games for the Stars, just three of those are against teams currently in a playoff position. As confident as that makes me feel, research shows that the Blues also have 10 games left, and only two of those are against teams in a playoff spot. So no advantage there. 

Realistically, it’s somewhat premature and maybe a tad foolish to even consider making Dallas my “gonna make some noise” pick for the post-season. There is no guarantee they are even going to make the playoff dance. 

Dallas currently holds the number one spot in the wild card race, a slight two points ahead of the charging Arizona Coyotes and three points up on the Minnesota Wild, who are on the outside looking in. And the Stars’ last game of the regular season is against the Wild. It will be tight right up until the end. 

Confidence Is Fleeting

So what has made me so confident they will do some damage in the playoffs? 

For one, the goaltending tandem in Dallas is arguably the best in the league. Statistically, Ben Bishop is having the best season of his career. The last five games he has played, he’s recorded three shutouts and allowed only one goal against. To date he leads the league in save percentage at .933, to go along with a tidy 2.05 goals against average. 

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Back-up Anton Khubodin has also been “lights out” of late, posting a .925 SV% on the season while filling in for Bishop during the latter’s latest injury scare. 

Ah yes, the injury sustained by Bishop. Despite the rumours, the term LBI stands for “Lower Body Injury”, not “Latest Bishop Injury”. LBI’s and Bishop have walked hand-in-hand over the course of Bishop’s career. While initial reports suggested that Bishop was pulled from his last start for precautionary reasons, he did not dress for either game over the weekend for Dallas. For sure, a situation to be monitored and another shot in the gut for my Dallas-to-make-a-run argument. 

Defensively, the Stars are led by world-class rearguards John Klingberg and 19-year-old Miro Heiskanen. Klingberg is as steady as they come, averaging a career high of over 24 minutes per game this season. Heiskanen is not your typical teenage defenceman. Playing a position where most players take years to establish themselves, the Stars have thrown Heiskanen to the wolves and he’s been a revelation. Quick and smooth on his skates, Heiskanen is averaging a whopping 23 minutes of ice per game, including an eye-popping 28:29 against the Vancouver Canucks in his last game. 

But the lack of depth on the Stars’ back-end is evident by the fact that journeyman Roman Polak on too many nights this season plays over 20 minutes per game. Tough and strong in the corners, there is much to like with the game Polak plays. But asking the soon-to-be 33-year-old to play so many high pressure minutes each game does not bode well for a long playoff run. 

Offence Is An Issue

You could argue that Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are as good a one-two punch as any other duo in the Western Conference. The two have been the face of the Dallas offence for the last few years, and for the most part have held up their end of the bargain. 

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But again, lack of depth has caused both Seguin and especially Benn to flame out somewhat this year. While Alexander Radulov has been a solid addition to the team’s forward ranks, on too many nights the lack of secondary scoring has been a real issue with the Stars. 

Radek Faksa is the only forward outside the aforementioned three players with over 10 goals this year, as he has tallied 13. While big  Faksa is a valuable player for the Stars with his ability to kill penalties and perform in a shutdown role against the oppositions big guns, asking him to be a second-line center as Dallas has this year is simply unsuitable for him. 

Valeri Nichushkin was brought back to Dallas this year from the Kontinental Hockey League to help provide additional offence. He’s responded with exactly zero goals in 51 games this year. Combine his lacklustre output with the fading skills of Jason Spezza and the underachieving season of Mattias Janmark, it’s no surprise that Dallas is ranked 29th in the league this season in goals for per game with just 2.51. 

The fractured forearm sustained by trade deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello a few weeks ago was a huge blow to this Stars team. Thanks to strong defensively play, Dallas has been able to hang tough in a playoff spot while he’s been out. A return to health before the end of the regular season will be vital to any hope Dallas has of making a deep run in the playoffs. 

The Chase Is On

Catching the Blues for third place in the Central will be a tough task for the Stars, especially if Bishop’s injury turns out to be more than day-to-day. But St. Louis has lost four of its last five, perhaps coming back to earth after a wicked run over the last two-plus months that have seen them vault back into the playoff picture. 

Obviously, anything can happen with 10 games remaining. But getting that third spot in the Central sets up a likely first-round match-up with the Nashville Predators, which could be favourable for the Stars. They have fashioned a 2-1-2 record against the Predators this year. 

But any potential playoff run likely means going through the Winnipeg Jets. In three meetings so far this year with the Jets, Dallas has won two of them. 

Getting some key players back from injury, as well as asking some others to play to their potential, will be essential for Dallas down the stretch. 

If the Stars align in time, remember where you heard it first when they are playing well into May. 

Follow me on Twitter @cbradley2928

Statistics provided by hockey-reference and theScore

Featured Photo Image Credit: Nikos Michals