When longtime star Jason Spezza announced his retirement from the NHL on Sunday, accolades poured in from all corners of the hockey world. The 38-year-old played 19 seasons in the sport’s top league, and he was a class act from beginning to end, earning the respect and admiration of his teammates, coaches and fans.
It would’ve been easy for the Toronto Maple Leafs, his final NHL employers, to let him settle into retirement for at least a few years before discussing the next stage of his hockey life, but Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and team president Brendan Shanahan were wise enough to recognize the hunger Spezza still has to win a Stanley Cup, and they moved quickly to keep him in the organization, naming him as a special assistant to Dubas.
The move to keep Spezza in the Leafs’ fold is the latest in a history of savvy management hires, including current assistant GM (and GM of the American League’s Toronto Marlies) Laurence Gilman, assistant GM (and salary cap expert) Brandon Pridham, senior director of player development Hayley Wickenheiser, and director of player development Danielle Goyette. Dubas and Shanahan have used their vision, and the almost unmatched wealth of ownership, to give the Leafs one of the deepest, most well-regarded management groups in the game.
Finding and recruiting great hockey minds is one of the areas in which the Leafs can use their financial largesse to their advantage. The NHL’s salary cap limits what they can do on the player front, but there is no cap ceiling on what Toronto spends on their management and development team. The Buds can employ as many scouts, former players, and creative/progressive minds as they want, and at a time where parity in the league is as high as it’s ever been, that can be a difference-maker on the ice.
This is the new team Spezza is now joining. He’ll be able to work with Toronto’s players, at both the NHL and AHL levels, to impart the wisdom he’s collected over the years. He’ll be able to work with Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe whenever Keefe is looking for the perspective of someone who has thrived as an NHLer. He’ll be able to develop his abilities as a management member, and possibly, one day rise through the ranks to be an NHL GM himself.
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This is how the NHL circle of life works. If you’re part of a team that has drafted, developed and otherwise acquired dozens of high-impact players, there will come a time when other opportunities become available to you. In recent years, you’ve seen the best example of this in the evolution of the Detroit Red Wings’ management group. What began as a successful team of Jim Devellano and Scotty Bowman eventually churned out great hockey minds like Shanahan, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, and current Wings GM Steve Yzerman, among others. There are only so many management jobs to go around on any one NHL franchise, so eventually, the birds leave the nest and find new places to soar.
That’s what you want to see happen with the Leafs. Obviously, if you’re a Leafs fan, you’d want the team to retain as many management members as possible, but, just as you need to continue to churn out top players on the ice, you also need to continue to identify talent at the management level as well.
Such is the case with Spezza. Perhaps a job will open up for him in his old stomping grounds in Ottawa. Perhaps a different team’s ownership will present an attractive opportunity he won’t be able to turn down. That’s likely not going to happen for a few years at least, given Spezza wants to raise his young family in his hometown of Toronto. But Leafs fans should want him to thrive in his new journey, and eventually get to the point he either is promoted, or moves on to a different organization that can meet his interests.
In the meanwhile, Buds fans should be elated Spezza has chosen to stick around. He is one of the most eloquent, fan-and-player-friendly NHLers there is, and the Leafs are going to benefit greatly from his numerous contributions.
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