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What Does Jason Spezza's NHL Future Hold?

With the Toronto Maple Leafs suffering yet another crushing defeat, will fan favorite Jason Spezza return for one final shot at a Stanley Cup next season?
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"Did I do enough?"

Jason Spezza ended the 2021-22 NHL season, the 19th of his storied career, in shock, with more questions than answers swirling around his head as he reflected upon another disappointing result. 

After helping his hometown club to the best season in its 100-plus-year history, Spezza (and the Maple Leafs) ultimately wound up in an all-too-familiar position, closing up shop with three more rounds of playoff hockey to go that features, frankly, lesser teams than theirs.

Spezza didn't speak to the media on Saturday following the latest crushing Game 7 loss. The Leafs' stars were the ones to face the music head-on, with Morgan Rielly, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner each stepping up to take the blame in front of the sea of reporters instead. But Spezza's name was brought more than a few times to that quarter of players as they prepared for a murky future -- and for good reason. 

Spezza is running out of time. Time to capture the Stanley Cup that has eluded him for nearly 20 years. Time to end his career on the highest of notes. 

Time to win. 

It certainly felt like that time was coming this season. But now, with unrestricted free agency on the horizon, Spezza's future has never been less certain. 

Well, in a micro sense, at least. Spezza's two options moving forward are more certain than ever: Re-sign in Toronto or retire. 

Spezza made that much clear during his year-end availability on Tuesday, telling reporters that he can't see himself playing anywhere but Toronto, and that he would soon meet with Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs' management group to discuss his role moving forward. 

Spezza's off-ice value has always been crucial to the Leafs' functionality as a unit. He's beloved in the locker room, is responsible for a few Rudy-like motivational speeches that have propelled the players to victory, has stepped up in practically every big moment the team has faced throughout his tenure, and leads by example in even the more minute areas, such as taking every single optional skate despite being a respected veteran. 

If the Leafs organization could simply harvest their love for Jason Spezza as a person into tangible on-ice performance, they'd be unstoppable. 

Unfortunately, that technology has yet to be invented (get on it, science!), and now Dubas & Co. must attempt to set their personal feelings for Spezza aside and evaluate whether the Maple Leafs' roster still has room for a near-40-year-old forward with close to two decades of hard miles on his body who also happens to be coming off his lowest-scoring season since 2003. 

That's not an easy decision to make. Especially given that Spezza did seem to take a step back in 2021-22 after defying Father Time for so long. 

In 71 games, Spezza racked up a decent 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points this season, albeit averaging the lowest ice time of his career at just 10:45 per game while occasionally watching from the press box as a healthy scratch. 

The veteran's foot speed also seemed a half-step behind what it had been before, with the Leafs' fourth line of Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, and one of Kyle Clifford, Colin Blackwell, or Nick Abbruzzese routinely finding themselves out-shot and out-chanced at even-strength. 

That isn't to say there weren't bright spots in Spezza's game this season. His shot looked as deadly as ever while his 12 goals were the most he's scored since the 2016-17 season when he was still in Dallas. 

Toronto's fourth-line as a whole might have typically been out-gunned on a nightly basis, but Spezza was the clear bright spot among the trio, finishing the year with a 52.02 percent share of his team's expected goals and a 52.71 percent share of their scoring chances at even-strength, all while winning nearly 54 percent of his draws, including 56.79 percent in the offensive zone. 

In a sport in which the margins separating victory and defeat are smaller than ever, the Leafs saw the ice tilt in their favor -- albeit slightly -- whenever Spezza happened to be on it. 

That, given his bottom-six usage and minuscule cap hit, has value. Perhaps just enough to bring him back for a fourth kick at the can. 

Making the financials work will be tough, though. Really tough. 

Heading into the offseason, the Maple Leafs sit with just over $11 million in cap space to re-sign any combination of Jack Campbell, Mark Giordano, Ilya Mikheyev, Colin Blackwell, and Ilya Lyubushkin. And those are just the UFAs on the docket, with restricted free agents Ondrej Kase, Pierre Engvall, Timothy Liljegren, and Rasmus Sandin all likely commanding raises of their own, as well. 

Clearly, the money doesn't match. Not in the roster's current state, at least. And while Spezza is a respected veteran who would probably play for free if the CBA allowed it, he's not Dubas' top priority right now. 

That, however, gives both sides the luxury of time. 

Spezza admitted that he wasn't ready to parse through his future quite yet on Tuesday, telling reporters, “I’m a little lost right now, to be honest.” 

And that's perfectly understandable. Game 7 is only four days old and the sting of defeat is certainly still pretty raw. But if Dubas does see a role for Spezza on the team next season, it's not like he's going anywhere. That gives Dubas time to shuffle the pieces around to make it work, with priority number one being to find a dumping ground for Petr Mrazek's albatross $3.8 million cap hit, along with, perhaps, moving on from Wayne Simmonds, who is under contract for next season but whose role seems largely redundant if Spezza were to return. 

Everything is in flux at the moment. That's what a shocking defeat will do to a team. 

But the Maple Leafs' adoration for Spezza within their building is as certain as ever. And if the fit makes sense, it's hard not to believe the front office will do what's necessary to give him one final shot. 

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