TORONTO – The topic of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ vacant C — an enduring discussion now choked to the point of exhaustion since Dion Phaneuf left the building — has gathered its second (third?) wind this fall.
Once general manager Kyle Dubas announced last week that he was much closer to naming the club’s 18th captain than he was at the outset of 2018’s training camp, the bar room and talk radio debates re-stirred.
While it was reasonable and easy to delay the captaincy last autumn, especially with Auston Matthews’ contract a mystery and John Tavares still unpacking his belongings, the void has now reached 1,309 days and counting.
The contending core has been identified. Pick a player. It feels like time.
And, listening to those involved, it sounds like time. Delay the captaincy for another year, and the lingering uncertainty risks swelling into a distraction.
Matthews, the franchise-altering 22-year-old centre, spoke (again) politely this summer of what an honour such a thing would be, noting that an extra letter wouldn’t change his drive or alter his work ethic.
Monday — following a high-tempo, blue-versus-white scrimmage at the Leafs’ practice facility — it was fellow candidate Tavares’s turn to express that he, too, is ready to embrace the role. Qualifying that he would also conduct himself as the consummate pro were he to be passed over for one of his younger mates.
What is most telling, however, is just how much thought Tavares — who served as the New York Islanders’ captain for five seasons, starting at age 23 — has devoted to the topic.
“No question, it would be a very special honour,” said Tavares as he prepares for his 11th NHL season.
“You just don’t take something like that for granted. There’s only so many in the league, and certainly for a franchise here like the Maple Leafs with its history and tradition, I don’t want to look at things differently just because you’re given a responsibility. You’re given that responsibility because of who you are and the way you’ve carried yourself to that point.
“You don’t let something like that change you. You want to be yourself, go out and play your game, do what you do. I know we’re gonna have a great one, whoever it is. I’ll support whoever it is.”
If Tavares — at 28, the eldest member of the core, and the Leaf with the longest contract — is the chosen one, he conceded that he “may address things differently” in Toronto than he did on the Island, in light of the market’s scrutiny, but his mindset wouldn’t waver.
Tavares’s most critical takeaway from his half-decade of captaincy in New York is that just because you’re the one wearing the responsibility doesn’t mean you have to be the only one shouldering it. A smart captain leans on his teammates just as they lean on him.
“You realize how important the people around you are. You don’t have all the answers,” he explained. “You’ve got all those guys around you to lift you up and help you when things aren’t going well.
“You need so much leadership throughout the locker room.”
So while veterans like Jake Muzzin and Jason Spezza, both on expiring contracts, won’t be in the “C”-onversation, their wisdom and steadiness will be invaluable to the young group, especially with Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey gone.
Tavares isn’t lying when he tells you he was still living out of boxes when Leafs training camp opened up at this time last year, but one roller-coaster winter in Leafland allows him to break down the principal leaders of the 2019-20 squad.
“We just have a lot of great people, and they’re all different in their own way,” Tavares began.
“Morgan [Rielly], being here for as long as he has and his maturity level, you can see it in his game and how he carries himself off the ice — just very level-headed. Especially as a defenceman, a very tough position to play and the amount of load he carries.
“Auston’s presence, his talent, his ability, his drive to be one of the best players in the league is incredible.
“A guy like Mitchy [Marner] has an incredible energy about him. Just brings the room to life. And the way he impacts the game in so many different areas and the way he plays it is so unique and pretty incredible.”
Despite the mystery surrounding good friend Marner’s contract and the rehabilitation of Zach Hyman (knee), Tavares feels an increased comfort level this September, with management and his peers.
Tavares is just as eager as you are to find out which wingers will join him in the top six on opening night.
“The feeling is always the same — the butterflies, the excitement, the buildup, all the hard work you put in over summer to prove yourself,” Tavares said. “You really try to turn the page and realize that whatever happened last year, good or bad, you have to go out there and prove yourself again every season.”
Tavares’s consistent support of his teammates and belief in the process do not go unnoticed. Depth defenceman Ben Harpur was quickly welcomed by a Tavares text after being acquired from Ottawa on July 1. Ex-Leaf Jake Gardiner received a congratulatory message from him upon signing in Carolina Friday. (“I know how much guys still care about him. It would’ve been great to have him back. Fun to be around,” Tavares said. “Great for him and his family.”)
Dubas said he’s looking for “a calming presence” to lead this room. You can throw plastic rats at Tavares and not make him flinch. The 47 goals and 88 points pop off the page, but it’s the player’s consistency on ice and off that is most remarkable, in the most understated way.
“Just his work ethic. He’s a top-five player in the league already, and he drives to be the best every day and doesn’t take a day off, a session off,” said Jeremy Bracco, who is hoping to take advantage of those openings at wing.
“He always asks questions and always wants to be better. To see a guy that’s already making millions wanting to be better, it just shows the level of commitment it takes to make the league and stay in it.”
If leadership is a team sport, does naming a single Maple Leafs captain actually matter? Can four alternates — say, Tavares, Matthews, Rielly and Marner — simply share the gig?
“That’s a hard thing to say. Does it make the difference between winning and losing? Really, no. It’s about the team that goes out there and works as a unit,” said Tavares.
“But when you do have a captain, you have someone everyone kinda looks to and sets the tone.”