Jason Spezza will face the Dallas Stars for the first time in a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey on Wednesday. He’s used the return to Dallas as a chance both to reminisce on the past five years of his career as well as catch up with former teammates and friends.
Since Jim Nill took over as general manager in 2013, July 1 has become a pretty busy day for the Dallas Stars.
Whether it’s re-signing young players or depth pieces for the team, landing a big trade, or bringing in some of the top names on the free agent market, Nill rarely spends the opening day of NHL Free Agency on a quiet note.
Such was the case on July 1, 2019 when Nill signed Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry, and Andrej Sekera to contracts in an effort to help bolster the Stars’ offensive attack, defensive depth, and veteran leadership. After falling one goal short of a trip to the Western Conference Final in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the incoming trio looked to be a significant boost in the Stars’ hopes to contend in the 2019-20 season.
But while Dallas was bringing in new talent and rounding out their roster, they were also parting ways with a handful of players on expiring contracts. One of those was veteran center Jason Spezza.
After a second consecutive season of bouncing between being a healthy scratch and bottom-six player, the four-year extension that Spezza signed during the 2014-15 season expired. With no extension coming in Dallas, the veteran signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That takes us back to another busy July 1 in Nill’s tenure: July 1, 2014.
On that day, Nill not only signed players like Ales Hemsky and Patrick Eaves, but also acquired Jason Spezza in a blockbuster trade with the Ottawa Senators. Spezza had spent the first 11 seasons of his NHL career in Ottawa, but was in the middle of his prime and looking to join a Stanley Cup contender.
And while he didn’t achieve that ultimate goal in his five seasons with the Stars, he left a lasting impression on both the fan base and locker room.
On Wednesday night, he’ll get his first chance to play against his former team in a Maple Leafs uniform. But for Spezza, it’s more so about reuniting with old teammates, coaches, and trainers and reminiscing on the highlights of his time in Dallas.
“It’s hard to pick one moment,” Spezza said when asked about his favorite moments in Dallas. “Playoffs are obviously the best, like beating Minnesota and beating Nashville last year. Winning playoff rounds bonds you more than anything. We had a year where we led the Western Conference in wins and we were scoring lots of goals.
“That was a really fun year to play. Seeing [Benn] win the scoring race was pretty cool. We were out of the playoff run at the end and it gave us something to motivate us. To see him win that was something special, especially being a buddy. Just lots of good memories and I enjoyed it here.”
In 379 games with Dallas, Spezza had 81 goals and 228 points. That included a 33-goal, 63-point campaign in 2015-16 when the Stars won the Western Conference regular season title and led the NHL in scoring.
Spezza also played an important role in two trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Dallas Stars, scoring eight goals and tallying 18 points in 24 total games.
“I really enjoyed it here in Dallas. I liked it, my family liked it, and the ownership was great. Jim Nill is one of the people I respect probably the most in hockey just for the way he does business and how honest he is. He’s just a great person. Coming back here is more about that I’m just happy to see people. I really grew close with the trainers here. I spent hours with Sudsy and Denny. It’s nice to see faces that you spent a lot of time with. You realize when you come back that you miss it and you miss the people.” — Jason Spezza on his time with the Stars
In the early portion of his time with Dallas, Spezza was the ideal second line center that Dallas had lacked in the 2013-14 season and helped round out the top six on offense. He was a staple on the power play and used his hands, speed, and deceptive shot to become a valuable asset for the Stars scoring attack.
As the Stars began changing coaches and the team mindset shifted to defense, Spezza’s role began to change. In his final two seasons with Dallas, his ice time dropped close to 13 minutes and his role shifted with the team identity.
That didn’t hinder Spezza from being a quality leader in the locker room and mentor for younger players on the roster.
“A great teammate,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said about Spezza. “He’s one of the best guys I’ve played with over my career. We spent some good times together and I’m looking forward to playing him tonight.
“He’s just a good guy overall. He cares about every single player in that dressing room and he’s a good family guy.”
“He was a mentor to almost all of us,” Tyler Seguin said. “He was a guy that always knew what to say and has been through so much. He’s a guy I definitely leaned on and anytime I wanted to talk hockey, he was the first guy I went to.”
Spezza is known around the league for his high hockey IQ and desire to constantly research and study the game. That dedication and determination not only makes him a valuable player during games, but also for his teammates.
“He’s a hockey nerd, through and through,” Seguin said. “He’s a guy that knows it all, loves the game, studies the game, and knows the history of the game. Like I said, if I ever had a question about hockey, he’s the first guy that I went to.”
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“It’s never-ending,” Benn said about Spezza’s knowledge. “He likes to learn about the game and I think that’s what makes him such a great player. He adapts with the years that he plays and likes to get to know his teammates. He’s played with a lot.
“That says a lot about him playing. He’s a great player and a legend of the game. I’m looking forward to getting out there against him tonight.”
When asked about Benn’s leadership and efforts on and off the ice, Spezza had his own glowing review to share about his former teammate.
“He’s a great guy,” Spezza said of Benn. “Salt of the earth, he cares about his teammates, he loves the game, and he puts a lot of work into it. He shoulders a lot of the load and the pressure here. I think we just had a great bond right from day one. He’s become one of my best buddies in the game and it’s nice to sit down.
“We talk over the phone, but it’s not the same as when you get to sit down and enjoy some laughs. It’s almost one of those things where you don’t want dinner to end because you get time to catch up and spend some time in the afternoon. But we spent a lot of time together because I was here for five years. You grow close with guys.”
In 38 games with the Maple Leafs this season, Spezza has seven goals and 19 points. He’s played primarily in a fourth line role, but has served as a valuable mentor and leader to a young Toronto lineup. He seems to be fitting in well in his hometown and is helping in any way he can as Toronto continues their push to the postseason.
Spezza will take the ice at the American Airlines Center for the first time since the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday night and will do so for the first time in a Maple Leafs jersey. The Stars are expected to honor him for his time in Dallas with a tribute video. And while he likely won’t play much during the game (he’s averaging 10:46 of ice time this season), he’s excited to get back in front of his former team and fans and reminisce on a memorable half-decade of his career.
“I didn’t really think about it much, but it doesn’t hurt to see yourself scoring a few goals when you’re playing a game,” Spezza said about the video with a chuckle.