TORONTO – Jason Spezza broke into the NHL as a 19-year-old with the Ottawa Senators in 2002-03, appeared in three games as his team advanced to the Eastern Conference final and immediately assumed every season was going to be just like that one.
Nearly two decades later, the 38-year-old centre knows better than to take the type of extended win-now window he graduated into for granted. He lived through the rise and fall of an NHL team’s competitive cycle over 11 years with the Senators, experienced ups and downs during five seasons with the Dallas Stars and is now back for a third try with the Stanley-Cup-or-bust Toronto Maple Leafs.
Better than most, he understands the stakes, the opportunity and how fleeting it all can be.
“It’s important if you’re a veteran player to impart that wisdom on guys and not just with your words,” Spezza says in an interview ahead of the Maple Leafs’ curtain-raising 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday. “Every young player has heard, ‘Wow, this might be my last chance’ or ‘This may be our last look, you never know when another one comes around.’ But to expect a 22- or 23-year-old guy to actually believe that is a little bit difficult. The way that I can impart that is by my work ethic and how you approach games and the level of consistency and seriousness to the situation. …
“It’s important that you talk about it and more so act the way you have to act when you’re a team that has championship aspirations.”
That, of course, applies across the board for any sports team intent on winning the last game, and is evident in the Maple Leafs’ urgency the past five seasons in trying to leverage a core initially built around Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, and later augmented with captain John Tavares.
While it can feel like there’s time for a talented group to find its way, the clock moves fast and legitimate opportunities can dissolve quickly. In some ways, it feels like yesterday that an on-the-rise Leafs team pushed the Washington Capitals in a six-game playoff series where each contest was decided by a goal, five of them in overtime.
Afterwards, a breakthrough felt imminent and inevitable.
Four more first-round playoff losses later, and the competitive window is far more tenuous, underlining both the importance of locking up a core for multiple chances at a run, and the risk in simply trusting talent to eventually win out over time. Every legitimate win-now season is precious, a lesson the Toronto Blue Jays brass 650 metres west of Scotiabank Arena, should heed after missing out on the MLB post-season by one game, a painful missed opportunity at the front end of their competitive window.
While it’s very much true that the Blue Jays will have other chances, the same applied to the Maple Leafs of 2016-17, and they’re still here trying to take the next step.
“We’re fortunate that a lot of the core, Auston, Mitch, Willie, Morgan, Jake (Muzzin), John, has been able to stay together because I think you can see the motivation in their eyes and their approach – but I don’t think you want to look at it as there are more opportunities,” says Spezza. “You have to take it as this is our last chance because the reality is with the salary cap, it gets tricky to keep teams together. Even with teams that win, they all get blown up the following year or two years down the road. So sustaining success becomes difficult and in order to do it, you probably have to have different people coming in and out. We’re fortunate to have the same core of star players, but now we’ve added a whole bunch of different role guys along the way and it’s our job to propel our star guys and help them get to the promised land.”
The Blue Jays, even under a very different financial system, will soon face a dilemma in trying to keep their core together similar to the one faced by the Maple Leafs a few years back, when they concentrated roughly half of their salary cap space on Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Nylander.
Locking up Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette may require more than half a billion dollars, at least based on the precedent-setting extension signed by Fernando Tatis Jr., last spring, the time is nigh to nail down Teoscar Hernandez long-term, George Springer is already on the books at big dollars and re-signing Marcus Semien or another star to replace him will require another nine-figure commitment.
Accomplishing all that while leaving enough financial flexibility to successfully fill in around them is essential, and will ultimately be the difference between success and failure.
It’s then that the margins between reaching the mountain’s peak and getting stuck on the way up become achingly thin. The drops can be sudden and precipitous, too, something Spezza remembers well from 2007, when after years of knocking on the door, the Senators reached the Stanley Cup final before losing in five to the Anaheim Ducks.
“Arguably our team in ‘06 (which lost in the second round) was probably better than our team in ‘07, but we lost some players after ‘06 and then we were a more mature team because we’ve kind of been through a playoff loss together and that got us to the final,” says Spezza. “Then the following year, we had a great start, we put so much emphasis on the start of the season and then we had a bad second half and ended up getting swept by Pittsburgh and then the next year we missed the playoffs and it just kind of closed the window on us without us really even expecting it. Then they made some moves, different guys come in, it doesn’t work, a new coach and next thing you know you’re kind of rebuilding without even really wanting to rebuild. So it can happen quick. I’ve learned from that for sure.”
Pivotal for the Maple Leafs this year will be to learn from their experiences since that auspicious series with the Capitals in 2017. Consecutive seven-game losses to the Boston Bruins were followed by even more excruciating losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best of five two years ago and the still fresh setback to the Canadiens after going up 3-1 in the series.
Spezza sees some parallels between the Maple Leafs now and the Senators at the start of his career, good regular-season teams struggling to get it done in the playoffs, and recalls how in Ottawa, “I wanted to be part of the group that broke us through … that pressure is why you play sports.”
“The year that I lost in the final might have been the most upset I’ve ever been at any point of my career, because you’re so close to it,” says Spezza. “Really, only one team leaves happy at the end of the season. And if you leave happy just by winning a round or two, your mind is in the wrong place. We’re playing to win. That’s important. And you can look at it as a negative that we’ve had all these playoff failures here, but it’s more an opportunity, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be the group that breaks through and can win in the playoffs?’ To have a team that we’re confident that we have that ability to do that to me is a great opportunity. You can look at it as a negative that you’re carrying around the baggage of the past. But to me, that baggage is only going to make it even sweeter for us when we can have success.”
That’s the type of outlook the Maple Leafs need to embrace, one that will serve them well now that their latest pursuit of such validation is underway. The Blue Jays, for the time being, are largely free of that extra load, but need only to look across the way for a reminder of just how quickly things can change.
Astros' Garcia to start Game 6 of ALCS against Red Sox – Sportsnet.ca
Garcia started Game 2 and gave up a grand slam in the first inning before leaving with no outs in the second because of discomfort in his right knee. Manager Dusty Baker announced Thursday that Garcia would get the ball for Game 6 and said the Astros are confident the problem is behind Garcia and he’ll be 100% healthy for Friday’s start.
The Astros fell behind 2-1 in the series after two big wins by the Red Sox. But they rode their powerful offence to consecutive victories in the last two games to take the series lead and move within a win of advancing to the World Series for the second time in three seasons.
The Astros won the championship in 2017, a crown tainted by the team’s sign-stealing scandal, before losing to the Washington Nationals in seven games in the 2019 World Series.
The Red Sox previously announced that Nathan Eovaldi would start Game 6. Eovaldi got the win in a solid Game 2 start but was charged with the loss in Game 4 after giving up the go-ahead runs after coming in with the game tied in the ninth.
The Astros got eight terrific innings from Framber Valdez in a 9-1 win in Game 5. The performance gave Houston’s taxed bullpen a much-needed break after relievers pitched 29 1/3 innings combined through the first four games.
Baker said Jake Odorizzi would be available for long relief Friday if needed. Odorizzi threw 82 pitches in four innings in Game 2 after taking over following the injury to Garcia.
Baker also said rookie center fielder Jake Meyers, who hasn’t played this series after injuring his shoulder in the final game of the ALDS, probably wouldn’t return to the lineup in this series. He said Meyers could pinch-run or pinch-hit but isn’t ready to return to the field. Fellow rookies Chas McCormick and rookie Jose Siri have filled in at center against the Red Sox.
Houston is without ace Lance McCullers Jr. for this series because of a flexor pronator muscle strain in his right arm. Baker said Thursday that McCullers still hasn’t resumed throwing, so it’s unclear if he would be available to return if the Astros were to advance.
If necessary, Game 7 would be Saturday night in Houston.
NFL Prop Picks For Browns vs. Broncos: Bet This Donovan Peoples-Jones Over/Under On Thursday Night Football – The Action Network
Jason Miller/Getty Images. Pictured: Donovan Peoples-Jones #11 of the Cleveland Browns celebrates after a touchdown
Sean Koerner, our Director of Predictive Analytics, is highlighting his favorite player prop for every primetime game throughout the 2021 season. He has a 428-326-6 (56%) all-time record on NFL bets he’s tracked in the Action app.
Broncos-Browns Prop Bet
Donovan Peoples-Jones Under 2.5 Receptions
Editor’s Note: Now that Odell Beckham Jr. is officially active, Browns player props are off the board at most books.
Peoples-Jones has been on fire over the past two weeks, posting lines of 5/70/0 & 4/101/2 against the Chargers and Cardinals, respectively. However, I believe it’s time to “sell high” on him as he’s due for some regression.
He’s caught a ridiculous 86.7% of his targets this season despite seeing an aDot of 15.7. Players with an aDot that high typically average a catch rate in the 57-60% range.
There are a few other reasons why my projections are lower for him compared to the market:
- Case Keenum is starting in place of Baker Mayfield tonight. Peoples-Jones has shown great chemistry with Mayfield over the past couple of games. The QB change seems like a setback for him.
- Weather could be a factor tonight. Steady winds of approximately 20 mph are expected with the possibility of some occasional rain. That would (in theory) negatively impact a high-aDot player like Peoples-Jones.
- Jarvis Landry is making his return from IR. He should be Keenum’s main target tonight, while the TE group should also see an increase in target share after a season-low five targets as a group last week. I also expect RB/WR Demetric Felton to have an expanded role tonight and he has been heavily targeted (37.5% of routes run) when on the field this season.
I’m projecting DPJ for 2.3 receptions tonight with a median projection of 31.5 receiving yards (market is currently at 38.5) — I’d give this under about a 60% chance of hitting. He’s the type of player who could clear his yardage prop on a couple of deep catches, so the safer play here is to take the under for his receptions, especially since we are getting + money. I would bet this down to -105.
Pick: Donovan Peoples-Jones Under 2.5 Receptions (+115) at BetMGM
Canadiens fans welcome Kotkaniemi back to Montreal with boos, vulgar chant – Yahoo Canada Sports
The Carolina Hurricanes were in Montreal on Thursday night to face the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, marking the return of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was at the centre of petty off-season drama after signing an offer sheet with the Canes.
In true hockey fashion, the Bell Centre crowd greeted the 21-year-old with boos and taunting chants.
The Canadiens acknowledged the former third-overall pick by displaying him on the jumbotron, which in turn sparked another wave of disapproval from the near-sellout crowd.
It was Kotkaniemi who got the last laugh, though, tipping in a goal in the third period for his first point with the Hurricanes — much to the delight of Hockey Twitter. Carolina ended up walking away with the 4-1 victory, keeping Montreal winless on the season.
The native of Pori, Finland appeared in 171 games for the Habs over three seasons, scoring 22 goals and notching 40 assists. He also registered 12 points in 29 playoff games, including five goals in Montreal’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Carolina tendered an offer sheet to Kotkaniemi in late August, offering a one-year contract at $6.1 million. Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin chose not to match, and Montreal received a first- and third-round pick as compensation.
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