The Maple Leafs plan to play a second straight season without a team captain, but it's the right move to exercise patience in a market as pressure-packed as Toronto.
It’s been 585 days since the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators. That means it’s also been 585 days since the Toronto Maple Leafs had a captain. And the third-longest leadership vacancy in franchise history is about to get longer.
Throughout the summer, speculation has been that the Maple Leafs could be inching closer to naming a captain, but as training camp got set to open and staff and players met with media on Thursday, Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock both confirmed that there will not, in fact, be anyone taking on the 'C' this season. And even though Lamoriello, Babcock & Co. had repeatedly insinuated that there might not be a captain for the 2017-18 campaign, the news will still come as a surprise to some.
But it’s absolutely the right decision.
Consider the Leafs' options, of which many would concede that there are two. The first, and most obvious, is handing the captaincy to Auston Matthews, and it would appear that it is indeed a fait accompli that Matthews will one day be named the captain. It’s probably even safe to assume some fans have jumped the gun and slapped a ‘C’ on themselves. But it’s worth asking yourself why Toronto would go through the trouble of putting the captaincy on the soon-to-be 20-year-old before he even steps foot on the ice for his sophomore season.
As it stands, Matthews is already in arguably the highest pressure situation of any young player in the league. While there other young players in incredibly tough markets — Connor McDavid in Edmonton, Jack Eichel in Buffalo and Patrik Laine in Winnipeg immediately spring to mind — it’d be foolish to insinuate that anyone is facing as much expectation as Matthews. Like McDavid, Eichel and to a lesser extent Laine, Matthews was heralded as a player who could turn around the fate of the franchise, but neither the Oilers, Sabres nor Jets are under the same minute-to-minute scrutiny on a national stage. Like it or not, or believe it or not, Toronto has the biggest fan base and one desperate to win. Matthews is supposed to be the catalyst for that. And anything less would almost assuredly be seen as a failure.
Even under that pressure, Matthews succeeded in his rookie season. He scored 40 goals, one of only three players to do so last season, and finished 20th in league scoring with 69 points. He burst onto the NHL scene with a four-goal debut and won the Calder Trophy, the first Maple Leafs player to do so in more than 50 years. He scaled the lineup, line by line, to become the team’s No. 1 center. Most importantly, he helped guide Toronto to the post-season, and then led the team with four goals and five points in a six-game defeat at the hands of the first-place Washington Capitals.
To put the captaincy on him now, though, would be to make him the undisputed face of the franchise. And while he may already be that now, his current role as an expected sophomore superstar doesn’t force him into the spotlight every single night in one of the league’s hottest markets. If he were captain, though, he’d be expected to stand up and speak for this team, win or lose, no matter how he played or what he was going through during his second professional campaign. Why do that to him when he's entering what is often the most difficult season of a young player’s career?
So, in deciding against Matthews as captain, the next-best thing would be to slap the ‘C’ on a player the organization feels is ready to be that rock in the dressing room and face the daily media scrutiny. Maybe that’s Morgan Rielly, or maybe, with the way he has developed under Babcock, it’s Nazem Kadri. Maybe it’s someone else. New arrival Patrick Marleau has been a captain before and would garner the respect of his teammates instantly. Veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey also has leadership experience.
All of those choices would be misguided, however, and the most bizarre part about selecting, say, Marleau or Rielly would be the feeling that the Leafs are living in an era of a transitional captain. That’s not to say any of the aforementioned players, all with more veteran standing than Matthews, would be the wrong choice for the job. Each could lead the organization and the Leafs wouldn’t be any worse for wear were any to be named captain today. Still, though, it would feel like a captain with an asterisk, the fine print reading: “Until we’re sure Matthews is ready.”
All of this is to say there’s nothing for the Maple Leafs to gain by naming Matthews or anyone else captain for the 2017-18 season. More than 1,200 days passed between Rick Vaive and Rob Ramage wearing the ‘C’ in the late 1980s and it took 714 days for the Leafs to give Phaneuf the captaincy after Mats Sundin departed in 2008. And while this may end up being the second-longest captain vacancy in franchise history, there’s nothing wrong with taking the time to ensure the decision, and the timing, is right.
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