The Toronto Maple Leafs were, for a long time, associated with failure. Now that those days appear to be behind them, it’s time to name the team’s designated leader. The problem is, the team’s whirlwind offseason has made it a complex decision to make. Whoever the Leafs name captain has a variety of shoes to fill. Centre Doug Gilmour became the team captain when Wendel Clark was traded away prior to the lockout-shortened 1994/95 season. Gilmour, beloved in Toronto for his play in the Leafs’ 1993 run to the Western Conference Final, continued to play at a high level after being named captain, scoring 57 goals and 165 points in 186 games, before being traded to New Jersey late in the 1996/97 season. He was replaced by Mats Sundin, who had played three seasons for the Leafs by that point after being acquired in the aforementioned Clark trade. Sundin, despite playing for some mediocre Leafs teams, helped them make some playoff runs before the 2004 lockout. As captain, Sundin scored 323 goals and 763 points in 776 games while also playing in the 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004 All-Star Games and winning the 2008 Mark Messier Leadership Award. Sundin would leave Toronto in the offseason and sign for the latter two thirds of the 2008/09 season with Vancouver. The Leafs wouldn’t name Sundin’s successor until years after he left. Defenceman Dion Phaneuf was acquired midway through the 2009/10 season and named captain at the start of the following season. In his stint as Leafs captain, he started strong, scoring at a 37-point pace, 44 points, and a 48-point pace in his first three years before his production really nosedived. In all, Phaneuf scored 43 goals and 186 points in 397 games and represented Toronto in the 2012 All-Star Game before being traded to Ottawa during 2015/16.
Of all the teams that don’t have a captain, the Leafs have the least reason not to. Their stint without a captain, dating back to February 2016, has lasted even longer than the captianless stint between Sundin and Phaneuf, which was two seasons without any of a third. Still, there is a good reason to hold off. Auston Matthews, the former first-overall pick and Calder-winning phenom seems the heir apparent to Toronto’s captaincy, expected to wear the “C” eventually, while John Tavares is the blockbuster free agent addition, perhaps the biggest in league history, fresh off five years already leading another team in far worse shape as its captain. The two situations are equally strong cases that perhaps cancel each other out.
Matthews, the first overall pick in 2016, was seemingly predestined to wear the “C” as the team captain. He was the first overall pick, a big number one center with both scoring and playmaking ability with “franchise player” written on his face. After winning the Calder Trophy with 40 goals and 69 points as the Leafs ended a three-year playoff drought in 2017 and following that up with 34 goals and 63 points in 62 games as a sophomore, he’s already established himself as one of the game’s premiere stars. Even taking into account a weak playoff, Matthews is at the level of star player where you name him captain based on his ability alone.
As I mentioned, this exercise requires me to make a case for three players and at least one forward and one defenceman even if some other candidate makes for much stronger case. This is the case for Rielly. In his fourth season with the Leafs, Rielly jumped from 27 points to 52. Rielly isn’t the only Leafs defenceman to crack 50 points this past season, with Jake Gardinder also finishing with 52 points, but the two cases are entirely different. Solid as he is, Gardiner is a 28-year-old who is continuously maligned by much of the fanbase in ways Rielly, a younger player brought up in the organization from his draft day, isn’t. While he is overshadowed by blockbuster addition John Tavares, and the three forwards drafted by Toronto from 2014 to 2016, all of whom are established stars, Rielly is one of the older members of that very talented core and has worn the “A” as an alternate captain for two seasons.
Tavares seems to have an obvious case for the team captaincy. He is experienced, having been an NHLer for nine seasons and a team captain with the Islanders for five. He has been one of the game’s elite scorers and, as an extra quality in his favour, has a tendency to make players playing with him better, if his years propping up Matt Moulson are any indication. Tavares also becomes a sentimental pick to be the captain, being a Toronto-born childhood Leafs fan signing the maximum-allowed seven years to play for Toronto. I also want to take a moment to address how clever it was to take advantage of his impending free agency to wait to join the Leafs by signing with them rather than making his new team get worse in other areas by trading other assets to get him. That’s crafty and gets props if that was intentional.
The easy answer to who should be the new captain is to have a co-captaincy system with Matthews and Tavares splitting the games. That being said, it’s cheating for me to say just use co-captains, plus I don’t really like the whole co-captain thing anyway. I would just give Matthews the captaincy now. Giving Tavares the captaincy would cap off the Leafs’ signature offseason move nicely, but in my opinion, signing Tavares doesn’t change the fact that this is Matthews’ team.