TORONTO – Here’s a theory: The National Hockey League doesn’t have enough captains to go around.
This romantic notion of a single man who is the club’s best player, perfect spokesman, grittiest worker, cues up the perfect pre-game playlist, plus a smooth translator between the coaching staff and the various characters and nationalities that make up dressing room… there simply aren’t 31 of these A+ A-types.
He can’t be too old or slow, but he must be experienced enough to command respect.
Oh, and he can’t play net.
Though they don’t wear the C, surely Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas) and Roberto Luongo (Florida) are the most powerful voices in their respective rooms. One could argue that Pekka Rinne has as much sway over the Nashville room as captain Roman Josi. Is Max Pacioretty Montreal’s true captain, or is it Carey Price?
Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler comes to mind as the blueprint. So does Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf, Boston’s Zdeno Chara, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, St. Louis’s Alex Pietrangelo, and San Jose’s Joe Pavelski. There’s Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay and Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles. Sidney Crosby for sure.
Until last spring’s shot-blocking, do-everything tour de force, we may have hesitated to toss Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in that group.
But even those guys get plenty help from the Bergerons and Byfugliens and Thorntons and Kanes and Hedmans (Hedmen?) of the world. Hernik had Daniel; Daniel had Henrik.
Connor McDavid is the undisputed Man in Edmonton, but even he admitted this summer that the Oilers need a dose of veteran example-setting. Thus, he’s encouraged by the additions of smart, veteran worker bees like Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak.
With NHL training camps set to open in a week’s time, seven clubs remain without a captain: the Maple Leafs, Coyotes, Sabres, Islanders, Rangers, Canucks and Golden Knights.
Add the fact that two more franchises (Montreal, Ottawa) are trying to trade theirs and Detroit will open camp without the injured Henrik Zetterberg, and we’re witnessing a league with more vacant C’s than a bedbug-infested motel on a road to nowhere.
But let’s focus on Toronto, because that’s what we do here — and, because, like it or loathe it, the captaincy holds more weight with a 100-year-old institution than it does in most other markets.
Just ask the well-meaning but miscast Dion Phaneuf, the last Leaf to wear a curved letter on his chest.
Or Rick Vaive.
Way back in 1981, then-owner Harold Ballard forced Vaive to assume the mantle from icon Darryl Sittler, whose relationship with Leafs brass had deteriorated.
“The first thing that went through my mind was: I’m not ready. I was 22 years old. I knew maybe two years down the road I’d be ready. But if I say no to Harold, he’s going to trade me,” Vaive told us.
“I had no choice. Probably two years later I was a much better captain than I was when he gave me the C. Trial and error. On every team, it’s not just the captain. You have a group of four or five guys that are the leaders of that team.”
After Vaive got stripped of his captaincy in 1985-86 for missing a morning practice, Toronto went a remarkable three seasons without one.
Same as now.
New general manager Kyle Dubas, both a practitioner and student of leadership, wants the next Leafs captain to emerge rather than be anointed.
The players themselves downplay the issue.
“We certainly don’t talk about it as a group. Guys know their role. Guys have taken on more responsibility. It’s up to the individual to do that,” alternate captain Morgan Rielly said Thursday after an informal practice.
“It’s a group effort that make up a leadership core. We’re lucky in this room. We have a lot of guys in this room that are willing to take on that responsibility and are more than capable of handling it.”
Zach Hyman can’t recall the players ever having a conversation about the captaincy.
“It’s all the buzz outside: Who’s going to be captain? But in the dressing room, nobody talks about who’s the captain or who’s the assistant captain. You just do things the right way,” Hyman said.
“We have older guys who kinda lead the way, and our younger guys are growing up and starting to become more mature and taking on a leadership role also. You don’t need a captain to start the year. You just kinda go with how things have been going.”
Still, someone has to not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy and hoist the Stanley Cup and pose for that Legends Row statue, no?
Sculptors make statues of those moments. Your drinks will forever be on the house.
When the time comes, free agent prize John Tavares — the 27-year-old long-serving Islanders captain — and 20-year-old franchise face Auston Matthews are the blatant front-runners and literal betting favourites.
When asked, Matthews has said he’d welcome such an honour, but wouldn’t it’d be a bigger story if he said he didn’t want it?
“I’m not the one making the decisions, right? In the end, Kyle, Babs, everyone is just preaching patience. They’ll figure all that stuff out. That’s kinda up to them,” says Matthews, who always played on teams with older players and seldom wore a letter during his development. “It’s not something I focus on too much. I just focus on getting better myself.”
Ostensibly, the soft-spoken Patrick Marleau, no-nonsense Ron Hainsey and Dominic Moore — recent Cup finalists, all — were signed a year ago to bring wisdom and guidance to a relatively green room.
Marleau, memorably, went full Any Given Sunday, delivering an inspired intermission speech during a pivotal mid-winter game in Ottawa, but for the most part, he’s a lead-by-example type.
This summer we asked Moore, now a free agent, to describe the leadership dynamic of the 2017-18 Leafs.
“Hard to say. It’s interesting. That’s a good question,” he said. After a pause, he pled the fifth. “I don’t know if I have anything on that.”
Moore has played 897 games for 10 different franchises. We asked for an example of leadership that just clicked.
“There’s a lot of teams I’ve been on where I’ve been impressed. A guy like Marty St. Louis, who I’ve played with, is such a character guy, leads by example. He’s not always the most vocal guy; he can be at times. Guys like Chara — everyone knows the personality he is, the way he carries himself. I’ve definitely played with some strong leaders.
“Every leadership style is different. That’s the thing in the locker room — it doesn’t always have to be an older guy. It can be a younger guy. It doesn’t have to be what you say; it can be what you do and the way you carry yourself.
“It’s not an easy answer. That’s why I hesitate to frame it [with the Leafs] because there’s a lot that goes into it. The dynamics on each team are so different.”
And the dynamics in Toronto are shifting fast, and that goes beyond Tavares.
Alternates Leo Komarov and Tyler Bozak both left in free agency, and Hyman credits them for having a positive impact on his early days as a Leaf. Respected men like James van Riemsdyk, Roman Polak and Matt Martin have also moved on.
“That’s some experience and some leadership [lost]. There’s younger guys that are willing to take on those responsibilities. I think that’s important,” says Rielly, the only letterman left.
“I’m not sure how, but I think we might’ve gotten younger. That being said, I feel like we’re in a good place in terms of our leadership. There’s young guys that are willing and able to be a big part of our group.
“That’s a good thing.”
• Leafs camp opens in exactly one week, and unsigned RFA William Nylander is still not here. Based on past examples, Dubas doesn’t suspect Auston Matthews’ wingman will show until a contract is processed.
“We all want Willy. He’s been a good teammate. He wants to be here, too, but that’s not in our hands,” Rielly said. “We’re just going to try to get ready for camp the best we can. We want him there, but if not, we’ll continue without him.
We’re pumped for camp. We’re ready to get playing for real.”
Hyman describes Nylander as a close friend and has been talking to him through the off-season — just not about hockey.
“I try not to talk to him about contract stuff. That’s stuff he has to deal with his family, his agent, and the team. You don’t want to talk to him about that.
“There’s a bunch of players around the league who are going through the same thing as him. He’s not the first, right?” Hyman noted. “He’s an important part of our team, so it’ll get resolved when it does.”
• Having the power-wielding triumvirate of president Brendan Shanahan, Dubas and head coach Mike Babcock quietly observing “informal” team practices from the MCC bleachers tends to ratchet the intensity of the Leafs late-summer skates.
“If you look at the pace now as opposed to two weeks ago, you’d start laughing,” Hyman chuckles. “You have guys like that watching, everybody ramps up. You know who’s watching. It’s a little bit faster than it was, for sure.”
• Dubas is undecided if he will continue to implement the player protocol installed by former GM Lou Lamoriello. Regarding such hot topics as “Are Leafs allowed to grow facial hair?” Dubas plans to sit down with a few members of the team as well as the coaching staff before he makes his decision.
“I don’t really have an opinion. It’s up to him. It’s not my call,” said a bearded Rielly. “I don’t think anyone really cares that much one way or the other. We’re just going to prepare for camp regardless of what the rules are.”