Of all the teams in the NHL that don’t have a captain, the Toronto Maple Leafs have gone the longest. In addition to having gone the longest without naming a captain, they have also had the fewest captains in the longest time to date, with only their third-most recent captain having gotten the captaincy 25 years ago. That captain was Doug Gilmour, who succeeded Wendel Clark following his trade to Quebec. Gilmour would score 165 points (57G, 108A) in 186 games before he was traded to New Jersey during the 1996/97 season. Mats Sundin received the “C” for the 1997/98 season. Sundin would score 763 points (323G, 440A) in 776 games as captain. On top of that, he would represent the Leafs in six All-Star Games during his captaincy (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004), as well as two postseason Second All-Star team nods (2002 and 2004) and the 2008 King Clancy Memorial Trophy over the course of a Hall of Fame career. Sundin would leave the Leafs and sign during the 2008/09 season with Vancouver. The Leafs acquired defenceman Dion Phaneuf during the 2009/10 season and handed him the “C” prior to the following season. Phaneuf would score 186 points (43G, 143A) in 397 games and represent Toronto in one All-Star Game (2012) in his six seasons as captain. Phaneuf was traded during the 2015/16 season to Ottawa, and since then the Leafs have been without a captain.
There isn’t much to say here specifically. What reason can there be for a team with several obvious candidates that hasn’t had a captain for over three seasons to not name a captain besides not changing the status quo?
The most obvious pick would seem to be Matthews. He is one of the NHL’s top stars coming off a career-high in points despite missing 14 games. Playing the all-important no.1 centre role and being the player the Leafs are building around, he is the best pick for the “C.”
Though the weakest of the three options in this piece, Rielly has developed a solid case for the captaincy in his own right. After jumping in the past two seasons from 27 to 52 to 72 points and leading the Leafs with an average of 23:07 per night, Rielly makes a major on-ice contribution. On top of that, he is an alternate captain as well as being the longest-tenured member of the Leafs, having been drafted in 2012 and made his debut in 2013.
If the Maple Leafs decide to go with more of a veteran player to be the captain, they could choose Tavares instead. Tavares posted career-highs of 47 goals and 88 points last season, and previously spent four seasons as captain of the New York Islanders. He’s a good pick if they decide Matthews is still too young and inexperienced.
All that said, I still think Matthews will be the captain. Matthews has established himself as one of the NHL’s top superstars and after three seasons and change without a captain, it seems like the right time to name a captain. As much as Tavares seems like an option, giving him the “C” instead is just delaying the inevitable.