There may not be an NHL regulation that states the Toronto Maple Leafs must name a captain before the 2018-19 season. There is common sense though, with Auston Matthews and John Tavares leading the charge as candidates.
Phaneuf as Leafs Captain
Ultimately, giving someone the captaincy is a symbolic gesture, as it means very little in practice. It’s a figurehead role that effectively only dictates who talks to referees during games and the media afterward. Nevertheless, it’s still a gesture. In a market like Toronto, the meaning behind that gesture is amplified tenfold.
So, it’s noteworthy the Maple Leafs have been without a captain since Dion Phaneuf got mercifully traded to the Ottawa Senators before the 2016 trade deadline. If his relatively unsuccessful six-year tenure as captain, during which the Leafs made only one playoff appearance, is leaving the Leafs trigger-shy, it shouldn’t.
Sure, that single playoff appearance in 2013 ended in a heartbreaking seven-game defeat to the Boston Bruins. Nevertheless, the captains that preceded Phaneuf generally enjoyed a great deal of success, including the previous three in Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark. So, what’s the hold-up?
Phaneuf’s tenure conveniently ended as the Leafs were securing the first-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Matthews. If it wasn’t obvious then that the Leafs were turning a corner from both a success and leadership perspective that offseason, it sure as hell is now.
Matthews vs. Phaneuf
No offense to Phaneuf, of course. He presumably led the Leafs with pride. However, whereas the Calgary Flames arguably got the best years of his career, Matthews’ star status keeps growing as he outdoes himself statistically season after season.
Admittedly, he’s only led the Leafs in scoring in one of his three seasons, his 2016-17 rookie campaign. Mitch Marner has the other two under his belt. Nevertheless, Matthews has outpaced him by producing at a 0.97 point-per-game clip overall (0.93). Besides, with Marner’s contract dispute serving as one distraction currently, the Leafs don’t need another.
As it happens, it’s been a while since a captainless team captured the Stanley Cup in 1972. It’s a coincidence that team was the vilified Bruins. So, don’t invest too much stock in the theory that the Leafs are rudderless and need a guiding light of sorts to lead the way. That’s not it. In fact, it may actually be the other way around, with too many cooks in the kitchen.
Leafs Candidates for Captain
Even with one-time elder statesman Patrick Marleau having been traded, the Leafs aren’t exactly short on candidates to wear the “C.” You’d admittedly be hard-pressed to argue newcomer Jason Spezza should get it even if he is the team’s resident graybeard at the moment. Marleau was an alternate captain last season, after all.
By that logic both Tavares and Morgan Rielly should automatically enter into the conversation as well. In any case, the former is generally considered to be a favorite alongside Matthews for the honor. I mean, Tavares has already been a captain in this league with the New York Islanders. He’s also a hometown kid who chose to come here and will likely remain for the foreseeable future after having signed a seven-year, $77 million deal last summer. Therein lies the issue, with Rielly’s contract specifically ending in three seasons. There are no guarantees here.
For the record, it’s inherently unlikely Tavares is going anywhere. He’s where he wants to be. With regard to Matthews, ex-general manager Brian Burke isn’t so sure it’s the same case. Granted, Burke doesn’t have the best track record of being right with regard to the Maple Leafs and his primary argument here has little to do with insight into Matthews’ personal feelings, but the Canadian tax situation instead.
Leafs Have Time, But Not Forever
Assuming there’s at least some wisdom in the stance Burke is taking, why not give Matthews extra emotional incentive to stay? Ultimately, Matthews is a good choice to become captain, as he both wants and deserves it. What he lacks in experience compared to Tavares, he makes up for in his poise, work ethic and performance. So, awarding him the captaincy wouldn’t be as much a bribe to stay as a strategic decision to help keep the team’s window of opportunity open for as long as possible.
The implication is that time is a finite resource. It may not be running out this instant, but it should not be taken for granted. Whether the captaincy goes to Tavares or Matthews or someone else entirely, the time is now in more ways than one.
It’s not about unseating the Bruins as the last team to win a championship without a captain, but rather unseating the Bruins in general and taking that next step. You need someone, anyone to take it first. With or without a letter, the Leafs players themselves probably know who it should be. Make it official already.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.