The Maple Leafs famously needed just 26 games to see Dion Phaneuf turn the volume up on the stereo and decide he was right for the captaincy.
“We never felt that we needed a captain,” Brian Burke, then the team’s president and general manager, said at a summer ceremony in 2010. “We felt we had to wait ’til we had the right person to come in and fulfill that role.”
The time has come, more than nine years later, for the Leafs, under different leadership, to finally name Phaneuf’s replacement.
The gig has been vacant ever since Phaneuf was dealt to the Ottawa Senators in Feb. 2016. The franchise has only gone this long — three consecutive seasons — without a captain once before in franchise history.
It’s time to empower this generation.
Dion Phaneuf captained the Leafs from 2010-2016. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)Let’s start off by saying that the captaincy isn’t some magical element that’s going to put the Leafs over the top. Three straight first-round exits had zero to do with not having a captain. Furthermore, putting a “C” on someone won’t suddenly make the Leafs any more Stanley Cup-viable than they are already.
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is already on record as a mild skeptic of its sometimes overstated importance, saying as much during a speech to Brock students at training camp in Niagara Falls last fall. He noted that marquee franchises in other sports, like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, went long stretches without captains and challenged a questioner on what exactly would change on a team that had multiple leaders but no designated captain.
It’s a historic tradition in Toronto though, one that technically dates back more than 100 years to Ken Randall, who captained the 1917-18 Toronto Arenas. The five greatest players in Leafs history were all captains at one point or another: Dave Keon, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin. The captaincy stakes out an official claim to leadership and, owing to history, resonates symbolically in Toronto like few places in hockey.
“This is such a thrill, it really is,” Sundin said in the Toronto Star shortly after he was dubbed the first European captain in franchise history in Oct. 1997. “Even though I’m from Europe, I know what being captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs means. It’s a big honour and responsibility.”
“This is not just another NHL team; this is the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Burke said in 2010. “This is one of the great brands in the history of professional sports on this planet.”
The franchise has never gone more than three seasons in a row without a captain. An unusual bit of history would be set then if the Leafs proceeded without one again this year. In fact, there are only eight captain-less seasons in Leafs history, five of which have come following Sundin’s decade-long run: 1986-87; 1987-88; 1988-90; 2008-09; 2009-10; and now the past three seasons.
Team president Brendan Shanahan has done plenty to honour more a century’s worth of history, including the reinvention of jerseys that celebrate the past and a Legends Row out front of Scotiabank Arena.
It’s time they start honouring this tradition again.
Matthews is a candidate to follow Phaneuf as the next captain of the Leafs. (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)Mostly, this is about the present though, not history.
This team now fully belongs to the current core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, John Tavares and William Nylander. Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, the two longest-serving Leafs up until last season, are both gone. Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau, the two players Mike Babcock mentioned all the time in leadership terms over the past couple seasons, are also out.
There’s a void now and it’s right that it be filled by those who will determine where this team ultimately goes. It’s their team. Naming a captain would make that official.
It’s not a novice group anymore either, what with three straight playoff appearances and the first back-to-back 100-point seasons in franchise history.
They’re ready for a leader, an official one that is, someone who might one day receive the Cup from Gary Bettman.
“If someone’s ready,” Babcock said at the end of the 2017-18 season, stopping mid-thought before continuing. “I think being the captain in a lot of franchises is a lot easier place (to be) than in Toronto. And so, do we need to put the extra weight on somebody? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
The answer was no. And it made some sense at the time: Matthews and Marner only had two years experience at that point; Rielly was still just 24; and Tavares, coming aboard in July, had a whole lot of weight on his shoulders already after coming home to sign the richest contract in franchise history. It was justifiable to wait a little longer, to not force the issue like Burke and Ron Wilson probably did with Phaneuf.
Now, not so much.
Matthews and Marner are entering their fourth NHL seasons and have established themselves as elite performers; Rielly is 25 and almost 500 games into his NHL career; Tavares just put together his most productive NHL season in his first year as a Leaf.
Someone can handle it.
“We have John Tavares, real good pro. Morgan Rielly’s turned himself into a real good pro. Freddy Andersen has become a totally committed pro. We have a good leadership core on our group,” Babcock said on the draft floor in Vancouver this past June. “We need these guys, like Mitchy, Matty, Willy — I mean, (Zach) Hyman’s a leader in that way anyway — to continue to evolve and become leaders themselves and really good pros and set an example.”
Unlike in the immediate aftermath of Phaneuf’s exit, and even before it when Phaneuf was rushed into the role, there’s no shortage of candidates:
Rielly: Babcock started grooming him for a leadership role early on; Rielly was named an alternate captain at 22. He’s developed into one of the team’s most important players and a Norris Trophy candidate (he finished fifth this past season). He’s a popular figure in the dressing room, hits the right notes in dealings with the media and more importantly, plays with the kind of care and passion that a captain needs.
Tavares: He’s done the whole captain thing before — for five seasons with the Islanders. He’s the other guy Babcock talks about incessantly in leadership terms — he does it right! — and it doesn’t feel like hyperbole. Tavares always seems to be revving in top gear at game-time and lingers long after practice to fine-tune on his shot or some other skill. He has the respect and credibility to do the job and do it well.
Marner: Marner doesn’t have the whole Jonathan Toews, Captain Serious thing going, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Marner is known for his infectious enthusiasm. He competes hard when he’s out there and he’s quickly become one of the Leafs best players. Furthermore, he’s shown he can be an honest public spokesman for the team, an underrated component of the job in Toronto …
Matthews: If he’s not the Leafs best player already, he will be soon. He’s arguably the most important piece moving forward — a 6-foot-3, 223-pound horse with goal-crushing, Hart Trophy potential at the No. 1 (or 1A) centre spot. He’s the face of the franchise, the highest-paid player on the team, and someone with the ability and stature to lead.
Any of the four would fit just fine, but Matthews, as the team’s top talent today and down the line, feels like the right choice. Babcock even singled out him and Marner for greater leadership roles at the end of last season.
“We think they’re very capable of doing that,” the Leafs coach said.
The best player on any given team isn’t always a suitable leader, but so often what they do ends up setting the course for the way things are done anyway. Phaneuf may have worn the “C,” but Phil Kessel was the all-star and leading scorer, and when he tip-toed off the ice mere moments after practice ended, others tended to quickly follow.
What Matthews does, or doesn’t do, will end up having the same effect. Why not empower him to do it right?
Like Sundin and some of the greats before him, he can dictate how hard and diligently work gets done at practice, in the gym and on a dull Tuesday night in January when the Florida Panthers are in town. He also has the gravitas to be the go-between for players and Babcock, a headstrong coach, and the (sometimes edgy, but also outspoken) personality, to be the public face of the team after disappointing defeats, encouraging postseason wins and maybe one day a Stanley Cup.
The Leafs are already entrusting him to deliver on the ice. They said so in February when they agreed to give him what was then the second-highest cap hit in hockey ($11.634 million), behind only Connor McDavid (and now, Artemi Panarin).
Why not give him full ownership of all that goes on?
It was probably right to wait on adding that kind of responsibility to his load, but not any longer: Matthews will be 22 by the time the season starts. Sidney Crosby got the Penguins captaincy at 19. McDavid was also 19 in Edmonton. Toews was 20 for Chicago. Jack Eichel was 21 for the Sabres.
It’s time to do this now — or sometime before the season that is.
The Leafs may not want to give Matthews the honour while Marner is without a contract and seeking coin on par with his (sometimes) more celebrated teammate. But that process could drag on until October, and the easy and suitable course anyway is adding a letter to Marner’s sweater as well; the Leafs could rotate alternate letters among Rielly, Tavares and Marner, with Matthews serving as captain.
It’s easy to overthink something like this, to imagine the captaincy as some grand burden that no one can handle until the time is right. And sure, it’s extra responsibility — maybe a little more media and public appearances. But it’s more about empowerment and tradition. It’s important, but not overly so. It won’t decide wins and losses.
And if not now, when?