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If you’re thinking Jason Spezza has been playing with a renewed sense of confidence, you wouldn’t be wrong.
The Maple Leafs’ oldest player at 36, Spezza has been able to approach his job with more certainty since coach Sheldon Keefe took over from Mike Babcock.
“The fact that I know I’m playing every night definitely helps me focus on the game and less about trying to do everything perfect,” Spezza said on Thursday morning. “I’m more just worried about being good every night with consistency, and that helps.”
In 25 games since Keefe became coach, Spezza has been scratched twice, both times in the second game of a back-to-back set. In 23 games under Babcock, Spezza was in the press box for 10.
Spezza doesn’t wear a letter on the front of his sweater, but the leadership he brings is among the attributes that have made him popular with the Leafs.
“What I love a lot about Spezz is his passion for the game, as if he was 19-year-old rookie,” captain John Tavares said. “How he carries himself every day — from getting sticks ready to taking care of himself physically, preparing on a daily basis, how much fun he has with the guys and his interactions with everyone. That sets a great tone. Everyone has a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
A play by Spezza that led to a goal on Tuesday night against New Jersey — the veteran forward was lying on his side when he got the puck to Rasmus Sandin, whose shot was tipped by Zach Hyman — had the Leafs room buzzing.
“That’s his game,” Tavares said. “I tell guys that they should pull up his highlights on YouTube. He has made some silky plays, some great goals, his talent is off the charts. We always joke and say we want to see some vintage Jason Spezza.”
Calgary Flames agitator — and good hockey player — Matt Tkachuk had no interest on Thursday morning in discussing his on-going feud with Edmonton Oilers winger Zack Kassian.
Tkachuk’s tone changed when the conservation turned to Leafs forwards Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
Tkachuk is close with both, having shared a magical 2015-16 season on a line with Marner with the London Knights, and having been a teammate of Matthews with the U.S. development program as well as the U.S. junior team.
“They’re two of the best — not just young offensive players in the league — but two of the best offensive players,” Tkachuk said. “It’s really fun to watch them, and to say I got to play with both of them is pretty cool. I got to see at an early age of what they both had and now the whole world is seeing it.”
Tkachuk indicated he was a bit taken aback with Matthews’ goal run. Heading into Thursday night, Matthews’ 34 goals in 47 games had him on pace for 59.
“He’s unbelievable right now,” Tkachuk said. “We’ve seen him put the puck in the net throughout his career, but not like this. Seems like every game you watch, he scores and every game, every shift you’re needing a goal, he is scoring it.
“He’s in the top tier of the NHL. Not just for goal scoring, but as a total offensive player.”
With the two-hour time difference in Calgary, Tkachuk, who texts with Marner and Matthews regularly, often watches the Leafs on TV.
“(Marner) is starting to establish himself as one of the best in the league,” Tkachuk said. “He’s one of those guys that you love to play with because all you have to do is get open. You don’t even have to have your body open, just have your stick open, he’s going to find you. What a fun time it was playing with him in London, and to see him evolve in the NHL, he has taken another step.”
Talks between Joe Resnick, the agent for defenceman Jake Muzzin, and the Leafs on a new contract are at what would best be called the very preliminary stages. Muzzin, recovering from a broken right foot that has caused him to miss nine games, will continue skating through the bye week. The goal for Muzzin is to return to the Leafs lineup in the first game after the break — on Jan. 27 at Nashville, which would mark one month since he suffered the injury in New Jersey. If Muzzin and the Leafs don’t come to terms on a new contract, he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer … Two days before he was fired, Babcock told us in Las Vegas that he would “never” coach in Toronto if his kids were young, a likely reference to the demands of the job. So it was not surprising to hear what Keefe, a father of two young sons with his wife Jackie, plans to do during the bye week. “I’m going to spend some time with my family and get away a little bit,” Keefe said. “That has been that one of the greatest challenges of this role, is to find those windows of time to be with my wife and kids.” … No cheering in the press box, but we’re suspending that unwritten rule to get behind Vancouver Canucks forward Tyler Motte, who went public this week in living with anxiety and depression. The bigger the conversation involving mental health, the better. Let’s hope Motte’s decision get his life story on the record opens more doors for players across the NHL in similar situations.
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