Ever since the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 9, 2016 they haven’t had a captain. Sure, the team has had a collection of alternates in the three-plus years since, but no one has donned the ‘C’ on their sweater in that time.
There’s all sorts of speculation that a new captain could be named as soon as this season and there are no shortage of candidates for the position. John Tavares wore the ‘C’ for the New York Islanders and chose to sign with his hometown team when he was one of the most sought-after free agents of the salary cap era. Morgan Rielly is the minute-leader and No. 1 defenceman drafted by Toronto after it missed the playoffs for a seventh straight season, so he’s been through the darkest days. If and when Mitch Marner signs, a certain section of Leafs Nation will want him to get the letter.
Auston Matthews is perhaps the favourite though. The No. 1 overall pick from the 2016 draft instantly transformed Toronto’s outlook when he landed in the NHL and promptly scored four goals in his debut. Ever since, Matthews has been one of the league’s elite 5-on-5 goal scorers — in him the Leafs finally found the No. 1 centre they had lacked since Mats Sundin’s departure.
Speaking to The Athletic, Matthews was asked what it would mean to him if he were to be named the 22nd different captain in team history.
“The captaincy in hockey in general is a huge honour, but especially in Toronto,” Matthews told Craig Morgan. “You see the names of the guys that have come before you. We have all the captains banners lined up for us in our practice rink. You know the names, what they brought to the team, their competitiveness, what they did throughout the community, so it’s a bit of a bigger honour, in my opinion, to bestow that in Toronto.”
In a massive media and hockey market like Toronto, the responsibilities and pressures of wearing the captain’s ‘C’ are at their highest. Already under the microscope, the captain right away becomes the de facto face and voice of the team, through thick and thin. When expectations fall short in Toronto — especially with this group — the captain would be expected to still have a presence and not shy away from tough questions.
This is part of the reason why the Leafs have taken so long to name their next captain. The team has been so young and in flux that it wasn’t really in position to confidently give someone new the ‘C’ for the long-term. There’s a little extra historic meaning to wearing the ‘C’ for a franchise like the Maple Leafs, and it wouldn’t have been ideal to give it to someone who wasn’t ready for the demands, or who wouldn’t necessarily be locked into the job for the foreseeable future.
But as the Leafs have emerged as Cup contenders and their top players come of age, it seems the right time to name the next captain is near. Matthews, for his part, feels he’s up to the challenges that would come with it.
“I’m going into my fourth year in this league and fourth year in this organization,” he said. “Every year, I think I have grown more as a person and as a player. I have more of a voice in the locker room and sometimes guys look up to me for my opinion. You can always take a step forward, and that area, leadership, is an area where I want to take a step forward and I think the staff and organization wants that, too. But whether I wear a letter – whether it’s a C or an A or nothing — I don’t think it will change what I do, what I’m like, my personality and how I approach the game.”
That sounds like a quote from someone who is captain material.