The Toronto Maple Leafs always have an exciting offseason, and this year will be no different. What will Mitch Marner’s contract look like? Will Jake Gardiner be back? Has Mike Babcock coached his last game for the Maple Leafs? All these questions have dominated talk in the media and among fans. However, one question that seems to have been lost in the shuffle over the past few weeks is who will be the Maple Leafs’ next captain?
Three Years Without a Captain
It may not seem that long ago that Dion Phaneuf was the captain of a Maple Leafs team that struggled to reach mediocrity. The wounds of that era may feel fresh for Leafs fans. However, it’s been over three years since Phaneuf was shipped to the Ottawa Senators and Maple Leafs management has not named a captain since then. It was so long ago that Auston Matthews wasn’t yet drafted, Mitch Marner hadn’t played an NHL game, and Mike Babcock was still in his first season as coach.
Three years is long enough and this summer is the perfect time to name the new captain. For years, the team was without a captain to avoid putting added pressure on a younger player or to prevent giving it to a veteran who might not be around when the team is ready to contend. Now the team has three years of experience with its young core and more importantly, all the entry level contracts (Matthews, Marner, and Nylander) are finished.
In 2019-20, all members of the big three will be on their first big NHL contracts. Those added dollars bring added responsibility to the group. They can no longer chalk up poor performances to being young or needing time to grow. Big contracts mean they must put up big results and they must perform like superstars because they’re going to be paid like them. Not to say they haven’t in the past, but now it’s the baseline. To go along with that, they are old enough to take on the responsibility of captain if one of them is selected for the role.
The Choices for Leafs Captain
There are three players that have a realistic shot at being the Maple Leafs’ next captain: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly.
The first of the bunch, and least likely, is John Tavares. Tavares will enter his second year with the team this coming season after putting up a career best 47 goals and 88 points. He came from the New York Islanders after opting to test the free agent market. Part of what makes Tavares an appealing option is that he’s been a captain before. He proved with the Islanders that the captaincy did not negatively impact his performance, in fact he thrived under the added pressure.
Now, on a Maple Leafs team that is very young, it wouldn’t be bad to have a veteran player like Tavares take on the responsibility of captain. The biggest reason against him is that he hasn’t been with the organization for very long. Despite signing a seven-year deal and showing his commitment to the team, it’s uncommon for teams to name a captain that came in from another team when a homegrown option is available. There are currently just five captains in the league that didn’t spend their entire career with that team.
The final two contenders, Rielly and Matthews, are the two biggest contenders for the captaincy. Either one would do an exceptional job, making it difficult for management to make a bad choice. Rielly may seem like a grizzled veteran on a team filled with youth, but he is only 25. Drafted in 2012, he has been through it all with the Maple Leafs.
He shared in the team’s collapse versus the Boston Bruins in 2013, he was there when the team finished last in 2015-16, and he’s shared in their success since then. He could be a Maple Leaf for his entire career, and Captain Morgan has a nice ring to it.
Matthews is the face of the franchise. Drafted first overall in 2016, he has been the Maple Leafs’ savior. The team was on the right track before they drafted him, but even drafting Patrick Laine would have been a massive change to the rebuilding process. Laine may be a budding star in the league, but Matthews has more upside as a two-way player. He’s also a center which is considered a more valuable position than a winger. Matthews is the best player on the Maple Leafs, a game-changer, and his potential is higher than any other player on the team, and he’s only 21.
With the Maple Leafs lacking in superstar talent over the past 50 years, Matthews has the potential to rise very high on the teams all-time list. Furthermore, there’s a reason why players like Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, and Sidney Crosby captain their teams; because they are the ones who are looked to when the pressure’s on. Matthews is that player in Toronto.
All three would make great captains. In that sense, the Leafs have the luxury of choice. However, that luxury is also what makes things difficult. Ultimately, there’s only one player who makes sense as the Leafs’ captain, and that’s Auston Matthews. The Maple Leafs are his team and he should be their next captain.