TORONTO — As needless as it was to continue to drag the captaincy saga all the way through training camp as to hijack the dialogue on the morning of the opening game of the season, what carried less purpose for the Toronto Maple Leafs was robbing Jason Spezza of the opportunity to dress on opening night.
While disguised as apparent concern over Spezza’s ability to kill penalties against maybe the worst team in the league, really all that Mike Babcock accomplished with the decision was continuing on his misplaced mission to make an example of the veteran centre.
On this power trip from the outset of training camp, Babcock has essentially run an open campaign against Spezza, several times questioning his willingness to fulfill the function of a depth piece.
This is when Spezza himself has done nothing but demonstrate a willingness and an ability to help the team.
But what really invalidates the decision is the fact that Spezza has already been included in the lineup Babcock will ice Friday night versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Is there something Spezza will almost assuredly learn in Thursday’s practice, or see from the press box, that will have him ready to kill penalties in Columbus?
Should he pick something up, it’s doubtful that it will come from Nick Shore, who will skate instead after ostensibly making the team because his cap hit helped the organization optimize the process of submitting a mass payment to the long-term injury reserve fund.
Even then, there are implications beyond Babcock’s strange desire to wield power over the former offensive star. Because as much as it punishes Spezza, it in some ways also works to invalidate Kyle Dubas’s decision to sign him, once again bringing up the question of the relationship between coach and general manager just a few months after Babcock was apparently only clinging to his post.
It also sets a dangerous precedent moving forward for a team that will need to corner the market on veterans free agents looking for an opportunity in order to feed a roster limited by its top-heavy structure.
Seriously, after what happened to Spezza, why would anyone come to Toronto, only to be made an example of?
This would have almost certainly been a non-story if Spezza wasn’t included in the lineup Friday night instead, and Mitch Marner, Frederik Gauthier, Kasperi Kapanen and Trevor Moore handled the penalty killing versus the Ottawa Senators.
The coaching staff could have pointed to an opportunity for load management with three games in four nights, or just simply reasoned that it needed to see Shore in action.
Instead they have embarrassed a veteran player who willingly made concessions for a chance to represent his hometown team, to serve a mentorship role, to have a legitimate run at a championship, to have a moment to savour on a night like Wednesday.
And in addition to that, the unnecessary noise around the team just continues to get louder and louder when the sole focus for the group should be on avoiding the consequences sure to come with another failure in the spring.
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