PARADISE, N.L. — It may surprise you to learn what Mike Babcock has in mind for the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, now that it’s a matter of when not if they’ll stitch a ‘C’ on a blue and white sweater this season.
“There was a guy who played for the Raptors last year. I don’t know if you remember his name,” Babcock said Friday. “He came in to town and he changed things overnight with an unbelievable demeanour, with a stick-to-itiveness like I haven’t seen, with a competitive edge, not bothered by much. Left all his talking to his play and they ended up winning a championship. I thought he made the team better around him.
“To me that’s leadership. That’s what you do: You bring it every single day.”
As impossible as it is to imagine any hockey player having the kind of individual impact Kawhi Leonard had on the Raptors run, the larger lessons from his brief tenure in Toronto are universal.
Show, don’t tell. Strive for greatness. Be consistent. Battle until the buzzer.
“You know, I’m not a huge basketball fan,” said Babcock. “When I’d go to those games during the year I was so impressed with Kawhi it wasn’t even funny. Like it was just because of his competitiveness.
“He dragged other guys in the battle, it was something to watch. I think we have people capable of doing it.”
It’s been a sporting eternity since anyone with a position of power inside the Leafs organization was comfortable saying that. Babcock took it one step further, too, following the first practice day of training camp by proclaiming “we’ll announce our decision here coming up and end the speculation.”
Even if there doesn’t seem to be much drama in the decision itself — Auston Matthews is viewed as the overwhelming favourite, ahead of Morgan Rielly and John Tavares — it’s interesting that the Leafs are deciding to do it now.
Not only has general manager Kyle Dubas expressed some doubt in the past about the need to formally recognize a captain, he seems amused by the relentless fascination with Toronto’s decision not to have one.
The Leafs have gone more than three full seasons since Dion Phaneuf last wore the ‘C’ and the organization had a two-year hiatus prior to that following Mats Sundin’s 10-season run in the role.
Clearly, it’s a decision not taken lightly.
The current group of players is shouldering the biggest expectations any Leafs team has seen since the Sundin Era. Even if the organization hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004, they are built with the expressed goal of lifting the Stanley Cup in June.
They are essentially trying to create the same magic the Raptors did, and Babcock has a couple boxes the designated leader needs to check in order to help facilitate it: “The determination, the love of being a Leaf, the love of the city, the love of your teammates, the willingness to share yourself are all critical parts of being a captain,” he said.
Either by coincidence or not, one of the areas Babcock praised Matthews for at the outset of camp was “his ability to share himself with his teammates.”
The coach travelled to Arizona to meet with the fourth-year centre over the summer and they appear to share an understanding of what each other needs. Matthews has said that his biggest goal for the season is to improve his 200-foot play — no doubt music to Babcock’s ears — while the coach chose to reunite him with William Nylander in practice after using them only sparingly on the same line together last year.
“I think I made it clear what I wanted to see out of him and what he wants to see out of me,” Matthews said of Babcock. “We’re on the same page and just kind of moving forward.”
The first overall pick from 2016 isn’t a rah-rah kind of teammate.
If he’s named captain, he’ll likely let his play do most of the talking. That’s something he’s been doing ever since his first NHL game, when he had a record-setting four-goal debut for a young Leafs team that went from last overall in the league to a playoff team.
“He demands the puck a lot and he demands to score,” said goaltender Frederik Andersen. “I think he’s a special player. You’ve seen it for three years, too, that when he’s on the ice it’s almost like it’s his puck sometimes and he wants it to be in their net.
“Not a lot of players can be like that.”
Hmmm … sounds familiar.
“From Day 1, he’s been an unbelievable player and I think it’s a guy that demands and deserves a lot of respect in the room,” Andersen said of Matthews. “I think you see it around the team. Guys respect him a lot.”