Matthews As Maple Leafs Captain Isn’t a Sure Pick

Let me offer a personal caveat. In this post, I’ve tried to piece together the statements that the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has made about team leadership from what he’s told the media when he’s been questioned about a team captain. Here, I do my best to make logical sense of what he’s said.

What you read here are my own considerations of the topic. I have no special insights, nor have I information from hockey insiders. However, because I believe the topic is relevant given that the Maple Leafs have not had a captain since 2016, I believe it’s worth consideration.

What’s the Speculation?

There’s been tons of speculation about who the Maple Leafs will name as their first captain since Dion Phaneuf held the honor until he was traded in 2016. In fact, who that captain might be has been one of the important sub-themes of the Maple Leafs’ offseason, perhaps only second to Mitch Marner negotiations.

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The speculation is, among most Maple Leafs fans and hockey commentators, that young center Auston Matthews will become the new team captain. Certainly, there’s good reason to believe that would be the logical case because he’s the highest paid player on the team. Furthermore, you don’t have to listen to many of Matthews’ comments when he’s asked about being the captain before you sense that he really would like the honor of being named to that historical position on this iconic franchise.

I’m Not so Certain It’s Matthews

However, in this post, I want to suggest a number of reasons why I don’t believe Matthews is a shoo-in for the job of Maple Leafs’ captain. I admit there’s a good chance I might be totally incorrect about the assumptions I’m making; however, when I read between the lines of a number of statements that have been made recently about who the captain should be, I’m simply not convinced that Matthews would be Babcock’s choice for this important job.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews takes part in the Leafs & Legends Charity Golf Classic, September 11, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima)

I believe Babcock’s thinking is important to the naming of the captain because he’s so old school. He’s also, since he has been with the team, acted as de facto team captain. This action made perfect sense because it was obvious the young core of talent that makes up the team had not yet grown into the role. However, now that three team members have signed multi-year contracts, and expensive ones to boot, it seems like the perfect time to name a captain.

Babcock Believes This Is the Season for a Captain

Following the first on-ice workouts of training camp, and the day after Marner signed, Babcock announced at training camp that “We’ll announce our decision here coming up and end the speculation.” 

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Mike Babcock Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs, Dec. 12, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, Babcock also had a number of other interesting things to say about what he appreciates in a captain. Specifically, when asked what he would look for in the next Maple Leafs captain, he highlighted an example that all Toronto sports fans know very well. He offered the NBA’s Kawhi Leonard as the best example of a leader. He was impressed with the manner that Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to the team’s first NBA title in June.

Babcock noted that Leonard “came into town and he changed things overnight with an unbelievable demeanour, with stick-to-itiveness like I haven’t seen.” Babcock added that Leonard had, “a competitive edge, not bothered by much, left all his talking to his play … and I thought he made the team better around him and, to me, that’s leadership. That’s what you do and you bring it every day.”

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Babcock added, “The determination, the love of being a Leaf, the love of the city, the love of your teammates, the willingness to share yourself are all critical parts of being a captain. I’m not a huge basketball (fan), but when I went to those games during the year I was so impressed with Kawhi it’s not even funny. His competitiveness, he dragged other guys into battle. It was something to watch and I think we have people capable of doing that.”

Putting two-and-two together, I think there are two reasons why Matthews might not be Babcock’s choice. The first reason is that the Leonard example doesn’t sound like Matthews as much as it sounds like Tavares.

Second, a day later, when Tavares flew into town a day late after the birth of his son, Babcock made a specific reference about Tavares being in the workout facility an hour after the plane landed. Furthermore, Babcock was quoted as saying about his 28-year-old center, “He’s serious about his craft, he’s very professional, he’s very driven.” Babcock added that Tavares “knows what he wants and he’s not letting people get in his way.” That sort of sounded exactly like Leonard.

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

A second reason happened during the summer when the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons reported that Matthews wanted to quit playing with Kasperi Kapanen, a regular linemate. Last season, Kapanen was the player who played the most with Matthews, usually alongside now-departed Patrick Marleau or Andreas Johnsson on the other wing. (from: ‘SIMMONS SAYS: Kawhi wanted to be part player, part GM’ –Toronto Sun – July 6, 2019).

If that’s an accurate request by Matthews, it seems like a bit of an odd desire on his part if he wants to be seen as captain material. Not that either player suffered on the ice; both players were productive and set career highs. Kapanen scored 44 points (20 goals, 24 assists) and Matthews scored 73 points (37 goals, 36 assists).

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Now put this summer rumor together with what has happened during training camp. It seems as if Kapanen is skating with a number of centers, but as I have read the reports, Matthews is not one of them. I’m putting two-and-two together and coming up with at least some possibility there’s some internal conflict between these two Maple Leafs players.

If there is an issue, one suggestion is that it might harken to a laugh Kapanen had at Matthews’ expense when Matthews set a screen on a Kapanen goal last season. Kapanen smiled when he said he didn’t think Matthews was the kind of guy who liked setting screens because he didn’t want to be hit by a puck. Who would? And, it seems like good-natured joking around between friends to me, but who knows?

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews Andreas Johnsson Kasperi Kapanen
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews celebrates with teammates Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Is something sour in Kapanen and Matthews’ relationship? And, if not, why are they nowhere near each other as linemates this training camp? I make this point because, if it’s true – and only the Maple Leafs management knows for certain – I’m thinking it’s not the way I believe Babcock would want the captain to act – too much drama. And, if Leonard eschewed anything, it was drama.

So Where Are We Now?

Clearly, most hockey commentators and fans believe Matthews will be the chosen one, and there might be a good reason to make that happen. However, and I could be entirely incorrect, as I’m putting the pieces of the puzzle together in my head, I’m getting a different answer than most people.

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In truth, I don’t have a pony in this race. I would be satisfied with Matthews as captain; and, the same goes for Tavares or Morgan Rielly (another obvious possibility). We shall know in just a few more days.