Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS
When Dion Phaneuf was traded in February, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost more than a highly paid, polarizing defenceman. They also lost their captain, which for a team with a history as vast as Toronto, is a pretty big deal. In their 89 years of being the Leafs, only 17 people have had the honour of having the C on their chest, and only four others are known from the Blueshirts, Arenas and St. Pats eras.
As the Leafs go into their centennial season, fans are left wondering who will be the player who has the honour of representing them. Here are a few names that could get some consideration:
The Case In Favour: Bozak has been on the roster longer than any player on the team, which goes to show how insane the roster churn has been over the past few years. Now 30 years old, Bozak knows a thing or two about the NHL grind. He’s played a bunch of different roles with a wide variety of players, has been through the ups and downs of being a Leaf in this city, and thanks to his polarizing play style, has experience with being irrationally loved and overly hated in this town. Wore the A last year.
The Case Against: The Saskatchewan native has been involved in trade rumours and speculation for over a year now, and could be on the move at a moment’s notice, making him a risky choice to lead the way. As well, it would be weird to have a Leafs captain who has half of the city blocked on Twitter.
The Case In Favour: While Bozak is the longest-tenured Leaf, Komarov has been part of the organization the longest, and has had the opportunity to leave and find his way back. He’s universally loved by the fans and carries an entertaining persona. Babcock’s affection for his play last year had led many to believe he’ll be here as long as he reasonably wants to be. Wore the A for the Leafs last year and has worn letters for Dynamo Moscow and the Finnish National Team. Komarov is a man of many cultures, who can groom both North American and European players that come through the system.
The Case Against: Komarov doesn’t carry the same star power as most Leafs captains, outside of a “we had to take one” all-star appearance last year. As well, the practical purpose of a captain is to speak to the referee, and who knows how well the zebras take an Estonian chirping them in four different languages.
The Case In Favour: At 22 years old, Rielly has a lot of hockey ahead of him, but is also the youngest member of the “new” core of the team, making him a bridge player. Has shown professionalism throughout his young career with the Leafs, and as a childhood fan despite living several provinces away, understands the meaning of being a fan beyond reason. Is signed until 2022, so he can get a reasonably long tenure in even if he eventually walks away.
The Case Against: Rielly hasn’t been in a leadership role since his Draft+1 year in Moose Jaw, which might suggest that he’s happy with being a support player as far as room presence goes. Naming him Captain will also start more Rielly vs. Gardiner debates, which are the worst given the fact that they can be solved with “THEY’RE BOTH GOOD AND THEY’RE BOTH LEAFS”.
The Case In Favour: Laich has been around the league longer than anybody on the team, entering his 13th season at 33 years old. Many players have already gone out of their way to call him a father figure since joining the team in the winter. He has experience playing in major junior, the AHL, and Europe, so he can relate to players who have developed from all sorts of paths. Wore the A for several years in Washington.
The Case Against: Toronto has had a strict history as far as handing off the C, opting to give it to a player who will wear it for the long haul. If you look at the players who only led the way for a year or two, it was because they were run out of town or the last captain came out of retirement / long term leave. Laich is only signed until the end of the season, and unless he comes very cheap with the expectation of few minutes, I can’t see him staying much longer than that.
The Case In Favour: Martin, as we’ve been told non-stop for the past few weeks, is a heart and soul player who will stick up for his teammates and do whatever he can to make the team win. As a bottom-six player, he is great in the room and will instantly make the culture of this team much better. Giving him the C will also give the Leafs diplomatic immunity from the older members of the media.
The Case Against: Matt Martin hasn’t worn a letter in the NHL, AHL, OHL, Junior B, or Junior C. Basically, not at all for the past eleven years, and maybe a little further into his early teens. That’s weird, considering all the great things said about his intangibles. Anyway, bringing him from 0-to-1000 probably isn’t the best idea with that considered.
The Case In Favour: Despite his youth, Matthews has shown incredible poise and media presence off the ice. He’s also shown cool and composed play on the ice. Matthews wore an A for the US National Team in each of his last two seasons. Not to mention, he’s the face of the franchise.
The Case Against: I’m not so sure that making an 18-year-old the youngest captain in NHL history before he plays his first game as the face of arguably the biggest team on the planet in their centennial season counts as “keeping expectations low”.
Wait Another Year
The Case In Favour: Nobody’s forcing the Leafs to have a captain. They went three years without one after Rick Vaive, and two years without one after Mats Sundin. A 3×2 inch patch on a jersey isn’t required to make a player a leader; those who live for the role will carry themselves with it in the room and on the buses and planes, where they don’t have their uniforms on. Besides, this might be a good business decision too; let people buy the jerseys of the rookies this year and double dip on them next summer with a new captain.
The Case Against: HOW WILL WE DECIDE WHO GETS TO TAKE THE 20 CEREMONIAL FACEOFFS?
Ultimately, I think waiting is the best possible option. Let the vets like Laich, Bozak and Komarov be the internal speakers in the room, while getting a feel for Rielly and Matthews’ presences. Seeing as the letter is just as much, if not more of a public statement than it is a private one at this level of hockey, it probably makes sense to have one of the younger kids take it eventually, but not just yet.