By Doug Doucette – @DigDoug7
The Toronto Maple Leafs, in the last hundred years have had it pretty easy when it came to the captaincy, and which player was given the honour of wearing the ‘C’. There was no shortage of great leaders in the early days. Hap Day, Syl Apps, George Armstrong—just to name a few, we’re obvious choices, respected not only by their teammates, but by the entire league.
Many of today’s fans grew up watching Sittler, Clark, Gilmour and Sundin—some of them quiet presences, all of them an absolute force on the ice. All of these guys were clear cut choices to lead the team into the future and all of them did an admirable job.
And then, one day, Mats was gone and there was no obvious choice for anyone to take over. The team was trending down, there were no stars in the making in the locker room, there were no drill sergeant-type veterans passing through.
Insert Dion Phaneuf. He was cold and calculated with the media, he wasn’t afraid to speak up in the room. He worked hard on and off the ice. He was, and still is, a good leader in this league.
It’s unfair to say that Dion Phaneuf is entirely to blame for how things turned out during his stay in Toronto. After just twenty six games in blue and white he was thrust into the conversation with the aforementioned legends. Dion played well on a bad team and got paid as a top defenceman, despite not having the tools in his bag to do the job, and he fell out of favour.
It’s hard to say that handing Dion the C in 2010 was a good decision, but the problem was, there were no other options—and so, Burke and company, shrugged their shoulders and handed it to him, hoping that the rest of a leadership group would fall into place.
Now we can look back at that situation and know exactly why this management group has no interest in rushing a decision. It isn’t as simple as stitching a big C on someone’s jersey. The job comes with expectations and pressure that could effect the player and the team in a variety of ways. This we know, because we’ve seen it as a positive and a negative factor.
The best problem we can have, regarding this matter, is that there are so many options to choose from. There will be guys on this team going forward that don’t even wear a letter unless someone is hurt, that could be captains on other teams.
Patrick Marleau is an unassuming leader with plenty of captaincy experience. He was brought in to be a positive influence, on and off the ice, with a young group of guys and it’s a position that he’s performed with great success, despite the highly debated subject of his on-ice performance.
Marleau wore the C for five seasons in San Jose, and even though he handed it over to Joe Pavelski in 2009, he was was a key part of their leadership group until his last day in black and teal. He’s worn a letter, one way or the other, for fifteen seasons in the National Hockey League.
I won’t suggest that he’s a candidate for the captaincy, not as his career winds down, and not with some many other good options in the locker room. But it would be unfair to everyone involved to not mention his name in this conversation.
It has probably been the most widely shared opinion, at least since June of 2016, that Auston Matthews would eventually be the captain of this team for many years to come. Many people were surprised when the captaincy wasn’t handed to him in his second season, and even more so when he wasn’t given reigns before the 18-19 season.
Matthews is still maturing as a player and as a man. He appears to be growing into a very good leader, under the tutelage of some very good veteran leaders, but outside of the locker room; it’s impossible to know if he’s ready for such a responsibility.
A new five year deal, and ringing endorsements from both Tavares and Marleau, it still seems likely that he will eventually be awarded the job—the more pressing question seems to be when it will be done?
Matthews may have already been named captain, prior to this season, if not for the signing of John Tavares. Tavares was captain for five seasons with The Islanders and for his last season, as a seventeen year old, with The Oshawa Generals. He clearly has the resume to do the job admirably, and even after a short time with the club, he has earned the respect of his teammates.
Both Tavares and Matthews have agreed that the other would be a great choice to be Toronto’s next captain. While, on the surface, neither will admit that they would be upset losing out to the other—it’s obviously an honour that they’re both interested in.
Tavares, like Mats Sundin was for many years, is unassuming. He goes about his routine and shows his teammates a formulate that works and one that has worked for a decade in this league. He’s not your typical Mark Messier type—his post game interviews don’t offer candid looks at his emotions and personality—but he can be a very calming presence in moments where it feels like the sky could be falling.
Morgan Rielly might be the biggest voice on the roster, in the locker room and on the ice; a trait he may have picked up after two seasons playing alongside the very vocal Ron Hainsey. In the last two years, he’s been the first guy out of the locker room to face the media circus. He tells it like it is, and he isn’t afraid of delivering a message to his teammates.
In my years of playing hockey, being the biggest voice in the locker room always seemed like the most important job bestowed upon a captain—and if that is the case, it seems like Rielly is already acting like the captain of this team, regardless of the character on the front of his jersey.
Maybe lost in this whole conversation is Mitch Marner. Mitch is no stranger to the C himself, having captained The London Knights to a Memorial Cup in 2016. He’s all smiles, all the time—and it might not be the prototype for a leader—but he gets the job done and it’s quite clear that his teammates look up to and gravitate towards him.
In the short time, since becoming a star with this team, Mitch has set the tempo for community outreach and it seems like every other day he’s being given praise for philanthropic works on the region.
To be a star on this team, and certainly to be the captain of this team, you have to be able to sustain the constant barrage from the media—and as well as anyone, Mitch has shown, not only that he won’t shy away, but that he’ll embrace the circus.
The options are seemingly endless—and we haven’t even discussed the guys who have shown excellent leadership qualities who would never be considered for the job, like Hainsey, Gardiner, Andersen, Muzzin and even rookie Travis Dermott.
The topic has been brought up week after week for the last three years it seems. Some have suggested that the lack of an alpha dog, in the trenches of the playoffs, will be and has been a detriment to this team. But with the wealth of leadership, is there really a purpose to having one voice?
If The Leafs are headed into the third period of game seven down one goal; does it matter if it’s Rielly or Tavares or Matthews or Marner or Marleau that is the voice that cuts through the noise? The most important matter to be discussed is; do these guys respect each other? And I don’t think there’s any question that they do. The leadership qualifications of every player willing to pipe up and say the things that need to be said.
So, if Toronto manages to be the first team in over forty years to win the Stanley Cup without a captain, who gets to be the first to touch it? I don’t think there’s any question, if you help an anonymous vote in the locker room, the guys would unanimously vote to give the honour to Patrick Marleau.
In the end, this is a good position to be in. For the first time in a long time, the leadership of this team can not be called into question. And every team that’s ever made a deep run in the playoffs has been rich with personalities like these.