Maple Leafs centre Jason Spezza. USA TODAY
New Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe (centre) congratulates Pierre Engvall after he scored his first NHL goal against Arizona on Thursday. GETTY IMAGES
DENVER — Some 21 years ago, Sheldon Keefe was on the way to getting the best of Jason Spezza in the Ontario Hockey League.
A couple of decades later, Keefe wants to get the best out of Spezza with the Maple Leafs.
There’s the potential for an increased role for the 36-year-old Spezza with the Keefe-coached Leafs that didn’t exist under Mike Babcock, who was fired on Wednesday.
“I feel like the system fits how I play and now I have to go and be a good contributor,” Spezza said on Friday after the Leafs practised at Joy Burns Arena on the campus of the University of Denver.
“I’m excited about the opportunity. I have always just been looking for a role here and looking to be part of a really good club.”
Specifically, how can the system that Keefe wants to implement help bring out the talent in Spezza?
“There is a little more emphasis on controlling the puck and puck possession and that is something that is a strength in my game and something that I can even do better once we get back in the mode of it,” said Spezza, best-described as a hockey nerd who soaks up as much of the game as possible as his NHL career nears an end.
“Just being responsible. I have played similar to this way before in the past and had success. I really enjoyed the detail Sheldon has behind it.
“People might think there is a lot of motion out there and a lot of movement, but for every movement there is an explanation for where you are moving and I think that’s where our game will evolve as a team. It’s not uncontrolled. It’s controlled movement and it’s constantly filling for each other and getting under the puck. It’s a lot more technical than maybe it looks.”
While the Leafs will require some time to get accustomed to the style Keefe envisions — with the next opportunity coming on Saturday night against the Colorado Avalanche following a win against Arizona on Thursday — Keefe has respect for what Spezza can bring on the ice and in leadership. It’s a different outlook for the veteran than that of Babcock, who took an unnecessary shot at Spezza in the initial days of training camp and never did warm to the centre.
“He has a skill set that fits the way that we want to play,” Keefe said after running an upbeat and crisp practice, his first as Leafs coach. “That sets him up for success and will help his cause greatly. Just his energy, his perspective, (Thursday night) on the bench, he was really good. I was a little slow on my line changes, but he was on the ball and he covered for me. Little things like that, I can tell he brings value to the group and that’s important.”
The game against Colorado at the Pepsi Center will mark the first for ex-Avs Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot after the off-season trade that sent Nazem Kadri and Calle Rosen west.
A struggling Barrie made a major gaffe on Tuesday against Vegas that led to a Golden Knights goal, scored his first with the Leafs against the Coyotes and now will try to handle his emotions against the only other NHL club he knew.
“This is a wild (week) for sure,” Barrie said. “Lots of change and we bring Sheldon in and a lot of emotion in that. We get a big win and I finally score a goal, and then to come here, it has been a crazy week, but a fun one. I think all the boys are in good spirits.”
As Barrie and Kerfoot take in their old surroundings as members of the Leafs, Spezza again will centre the third line, determined to demonstrate to Keefe the Leafs were wise to sign Spezza to a one-year deal.
During the 1998-99 OHL season, Keefe was a foe, recording 116 points in 66 games for St. Michael’s and Barrie, while Spezza, three years younger at the age of 15, was putting up 71 points in 67 games for the Brampton Battalion.
Keefe beat Spezza, and Brad Boyes, in the race to be named OHL rookie of the year.
The Leafs’ new coach has not brought that up with the club’s oldest player.
“He hasn’t,” Spezza said with his infamous laugh. “It will be unspoken of.”
MARNER UP TO SHENANIGANS
Never mind his continuing recovery from a sprained ankle, Mitch Marner is making his presence felt with the Maple Leafs.
“He is being a complete pest,” defenceman Tyson Barrie said. “He is hiding guys’ gear in the locker room. He has been at home too long.”’
Marner joined the Leafs on the trip on Wednesday, flying to the southwest with captain John Tavares, who had returned to Toronto for a personal matter, and Sheldon Keefe, who had just been named coach.
On Friday, Marner, clad in shorts and a hoodie, watched practice from the bench. Marner has missed the past six games and won’t be back in the lineup soon.
Keefe said he appreciated travelling with Marner and Tavares on Wednesday.
“I was able to spend time and talk with them on the plane and get lots of things organized,” Keefe said. “That helped me get a good start.”
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