On Saturday night, Dion Phaneuf stepped through the doors of the Air Canada Centre once again as a member of the Ottawa Senators, two years and one day after he was traded by the Toronto Maple Leafs to their provincial rivals. It was not Phaneuf’s first time back in his former home, but it was still significant for another reason.
Ottawa’s 6-3 drubbing at the hands of the Maple Leafs was not only the two-year (and one day) anniversary of Phaneuf’s being traded, but it marked two full years for Toronto of being without a captain.
Two years after dealing their captain Phaneuf, no one has worn the “C” on those iconic blue jerseys. At the time, the Maple Leafs were dead last in the NHL, so having a captain was low on the priority list. But now that the Maple Leafs are nearing Stanley Cup contender status, it may become more important to have someone wearing that "C" on the ice.
So how should the Toronto Maple Leafs proceed when it comes to their captaincy?
History of captaincy transitions
Since Conn Smythe bought the team and re-christened them the “Maple Leafs” in 1927, the team has had three extended periods without a captain.
The first came when captain Rick Vaive was stripped of the captaincy for missing a morning practice during the 1985-1986 season. The Maple Leafs would play out the season with no captain and would play the next three full seasons without one before naming Rob Rammage captain in 1989.
Vaive was traded to Chicago in the 1987 off-season. That three-and-a- half-year captaincy vacancy is the longest in franchise history.
When Mats Sundin left as a free agent in 2008, the Maple Leafs once again found themselves without a captain. Sundin had been the captain for more than a decade. Management did not race to name a new captain at first, playing the 2008/2009 season without a captain. They would play through the following season without a captain too.
However, when the Leafs traded for Phaneuf in January 2010 and named him an assistant captain after only nine games in the blue and white, it seemed clear that he had been acquired by then-GM Brian Burke to be the new captain.
Two months after the season ended (with the Leafs having missed the playoffs for the fifth year in a row), Phaneuf was named captain despite having only played 26 games for Toronto. Management claimed he earned the "C" due to his leadership in the locker room.
When the last-place Leafs traded Phaneuf to Ottawa on February 9th, 2016, just over two years ago, they found themselves without a captain and without a real heir apparent. And that’s where the Leafs have been ever since.
Prior to each season since, management announced that they would play without a captain, including for the 2017/2018 season, meaning no Maple Leaf will wear the "C" until October 2018 at the earliest.
Leafs record without a captain
The funny thing is that there really is not any reason to rush for the Leafs. Toronto has a surprisingly good record without a captain. Excluding this current season, which has yet to be decided, the Maple Leafs have played six full seasons without a captain.
In those six seasons, they have reached the playoffs three times; two out of the three seasons following Vaive’s captaincy as well as the first full season following Phaneuf’s departure.
Focusing on this current batch of Leafs, they have actually been significantly better since Phaneuf left. At the time of his trade in 2016, Toronto was tracking for last in the NHL with a winning percentage of 32 percent.
After trading Phaneuf, their record remained unchanged, winning 32 percent of their games down the stretch, on their way to a last place finish. That actually ended up being for the best, as that last place finish helped them win the first-overall pick, which was used to draft Auston Matthews.
In their first season without a captain post-Phaneuf, the Maple Leafs were the surprise of the NHL season, going from last in the NHL in 2016 to a playoff spot in 2017. It was only the second time since the lockout that the Leafs made the playoffs.
During Phaneuf’s captaincy, they only reached the playoffs once, after the lockout-shortened 2013 season. In their first season without a captain, Toronto did just as well as they ever had with one in the previous decade.
And now there’s the 2017/2018 season, which has been even better. After management announced they would not name a new captain this season, the Leafs have been winning by committee. Led by four lines that can score, Toronto has all but clinched a playoff spot two years after they last had a captain.
Assuming all the trailing teams in the Atlantic Division win all their games in hand, the Maple Leafs are still nine points inside a playoff spot. Not factoring in hypothetical results with games in hand, Toronto is 18 points inside the playoffs, putting them closer to first overall in the division (and NHL) than outside the playoffs.
Barring a complete shock, the Maple Leafs will have made the playoffs twice in two years since trading their most recent captain. Who needs a captain anyway?
That being said, the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be captainless forever. No team, least of all Cup contenders, play for extended periods of time without a captain. Eventually, they will pick someone to wear the "C", and hopefully receive the Stanley Cup from the commissioner in a not-to-distant June.
So who will that captain be?
In many ways, defenceman Morgan Rielly is the most-fitting choice for the Leafs. Rielly is into his fifth season with the Leafs and has been their top defenseman since making his debut in 2013.
Because this Maple Leafs' team is so young, Rielly is actually one of the longest serving Maple Leafs in the lineup and is also locked up to a long-term deal, meaning he will likely be in the blue and white for a long time.
Rielly has been an assistant captain for several years now. It is also worth noting that Rielly handles a lot of the media for the team, speaking to reporters in the dressing room post-game more than any other Maple Leaf (except perhaps Auston Matthews of late, more on him later).
It has also been said that Rielly is one of the biggest leaders in the dressing room. Even on the ice, a lot of the captain’s duties such as talking to officials already falls to Rielly. He is essentially doing the job anyway. Experienced and mature, it would make a lot of sense to switch the "A" on his jersey to a "C".
Patrick Marleau is the oldest and most experienced player in the Maple Leafs' lineup. He is the only player in the lineup who has played in a Stanley Cup Final and has played more playoff games on his own than the entire rest of the Maple Leafs' lineup combined. He also served as the captain of the San Jose Sharks for four years (not including the 2004/2005 lockout).
With the Leafs being so young, Marleau was signed as a free agent this summer to bring some experience and mentor all these young players.
And it has helped.
One prime example was last month when the Leafs went into the second intermission trailing the Ottawa Senators 3-1. It was Marleau who stood up in the dressing room at the intermission and fired up his teammates, who roared back to win 4-3.
The problem with Marleau is that he is unlikely to be with the team long-term. He only signed a three-year deal last summer, meaning his contract is up on July 1st, 2020. He will be 40, turning 41, when that happens. The odds are extremely slim that the Leafs will re-sign Marleau.
The former Shark, who lost in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, said when he signed with Toronto that he believed he could win a Cup in Toronto.
While Toronto is certainly playing well, a Stanley Cup run this year seems a bit premature. Unless the Leafs win in the next two years, there is not much of a point in appointing Marleau captain since they will need a new one in two years anyway.
In 2015, the Montreal Canadiens held a vote to pick their new captain. If the Toronto Maple Leafs did the same thing as their biggest rivals, while he may not win, expect a lot of votes to go to Leo Komarov. While “Uncle Leo” may not the most productive player offensively on the ice, the book on Komarov is that he owns the locker room.
He is a mentor to the younger players, brings a lot of personality, and is beloved by his teammates. Hence the nickname “Uncle Leo.” He is also a gritty, passionate player on the ice, giving a great example of giving-your-all to his young teammates.
There are a couple of issues with Komarov. The first is that he is a free agent this summer, meaning he may not even be back next season to be named captain. There was a time when players like Komarov were regularly named captain.
Teams preferred to choose someone who was a mentor and leader off the ice to wear the "C". Somewhere in the 1970's and 80's, the shift began to where we are today where the star player is named captain.
While there are some exceptions, the captains in the NHL tend to be one of the biggest stars on the team and the fact is that Komarov just got demoted to the fourth line. Back in the 1950's and 60's, a big, beloved personality Komarov may have been a perfect choice. But that just doesn’t earn you the "C" in today’s NHL.
Believe it or not, former first-line centre (during the Phil Kessel era) Tyler Bozak is the longest-serving member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was signed as a free agent out of college and cracked the Leafs lineup in 2009/2010. He spent several years on the Leafs' top line with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk before Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh in 2015.
Despite being a fantastic face-off man, he is probably still the best Toronto has on the draw and takes a lot of the big faceoffs. He was never a first-line centre. However, with the emergence of Matthews and Nazem Kadri, he is now in a far more comfortable role on the second/third line.
The best seasons of his career have actually come since Kessel was traded.
Bozak has been an assistant captain for several years now and for good reason. At 31, he is one of the most experienced players on the team. As previously stated, he is also the longest-serving Maple Leaf on the roster.
He plays in a lot of pressure situations, including a lot of late-game faceoffs and the powerplay, and gives 110 percent every time he is on the ice.
However, Bozak is not known for being a big presence in the dressing room or on the ice. That’s not to say that he is not a leader, but it is not part of his reputation the way it is for Rielly or Komarov.
As previously stated, sometime around the 1970's there was a shift in the NHL’s practice of naming captains. While there were exceptions, for the most part team captains were not the star player. They were veterans who were leaders in the dressing room and were calming presences for their teams.
Let’s not forget that the great Maurice Richard only captained the Montreal Canadiens for the last four years of his career. During his infinite career, Gordie Howe only captained the Detroit Red Wings for four years.
When the Maple Leafs last won the Cup in 1967, their captain wasn’t leading goal scorer Ron Ellis, the ever-reliable Frank Mahovlich, or point-leader Dave Keon (who did eventually become captain in 1969). It was George Armstrong. The “Chief” was never the team’s leading scorer or superstar, but he was a constant presence that his teammates admired.
That is not how the NHL works anymore. If you are the superstar, you are the captain regardless of your ability to lead. While there are exceptions like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, being great at hockey does not make you a good leader. Just look at the Washington Capitals.
There is perhaps no bigger human being in the city of Toronto right now than Auston Matthews. And with good reason. The kid scored 40 goals in his rookie year last season and, despite several injury breaks, still leads the team in goals and points this season.
While Matthews does not have an "A" on his jersey (yet), he is the face of the franchise and handles more media duty than anyone except perhaps Rielly. And the gossip coming out of Leafland is that Matthews does step up and lead in the dressing room. He certainly leads by example with his outstanding offensive play on the ice.
A lot could depend on how the Maple Leafs do this season. Management is not rushing to name a captain and why should they? Since trading Phaneuf, the Leafs are 83-65-21 and are well on their way to a second consecutive playoff berth for the first time since before the 2004/2005 lockout.
At this time, it looks like Toronto is doing captaincy by committee, with Matthews, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner leading the way on the ice, with Rielly, Marleau, and Komarov taking charge in the dressing room.
Another first-round loss in the playoffs and maybe management will decide it is time to designate someone to step up. Or perhaps Toronto will go deep and Mike Babcock, Lou Lamoriello, and Brendan Shanahan will decide they need a captain to lead them over the final hurdle.
But it does not appear that there is a desire nor a need to rush a "C" onto someone’s jersey. Do not be surprised if the Leafs go another season without a captain.
And who will wear that "C" when it is finally handed out?
Auston Matthews... who else?
He may not be the most qualified candidate, that is probably Morgan Rielly, but he is the star player and that’s the way it goes. And Matthews is a pretty reliable star player.
He is a presence in every game, even if he isn’t scoring, and apparently already is a leader in the dressing room, despite being only in his second season.
Perhaps most importantly, Matthews has done an extremely good job over the last years of handling the pressure of being the biggest star and savior of arguably hockey’s most famous franchise in the centre of the hockey universe.
More than a few prospects have cracked under the pressure of being a star in Toronto. Just ask Nazem Kadri how being that young sensation can be a distraction. But it does not seem to be rattling Matthews. If he can handle the pressure, and the vicious Toronto media, he can handle anything.
It may take a year, but barring a major hot streak, by the time the Leafs are ready to break their Stanley Cup drought, Auston Matthews will don the "C" on his jersey.
Who do you feel should be the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and why? Let us know in the comments section below.