I still remember the moment I learned that the Leafs traded Dion Phaneuf to the Senators. It was a Tuesday morning during my second semester of university, which meant I had class at 11:30AM. After arriving to class a few minutes early, I decided to pass the time by checking my phone. A push notification broke the news: The Leafs no longer had a captain.
This was on Tuesday, February 6, 2016, and for many of us Leafs fans, it was immediately clear that the trade was a major milestone in the rebuild. Phaneuf’s departure also created an opportunity for the Leafs to name their 19th captain in franchise history. Today, this void has yet to be filled, leaving the Leafs as one of only four teams without a captain. The others are Arizona, Buffalo, and Vegas. Thanks to Auston Matthews, however, the question of the Leafs vacant captaincy is no longer a question of who, but when.
When Mike Babcock was asked about the captaincy on September 14th, he said that the Leafs won’t name a captain this season. Naturally, this suggests that the announcement won’t be made until the offseason at the earliest. However, I would not be writing this article if I completely believed him. This doubt is triggered by the fact that a perfect opportunity to make the announcement is quickly approaching.
The best time to name Matthews captain will arrive on December 19th, when the Leafs play the Carolina Hurricanes in what is being dubbed the “Next Century Game.” Although this game is merely one of 82 on the Leafs regular season schedule, it’s importance is far greater than an ordinary matchup.
As described by Brendan Shanahan, the Next Century Game “marks the culmination of a year of Maple Leafs Centennial Anniversary celebrations that paid tribute to the teams, the accomplishments and the memories of the first 100 years of Maple Leafs hockey.” The Leafs will be wearing special Toronto Arenas jerseys for the occasion, and the 2pm puck drop mirrors the start time of the first game in franchise history, which was exactly 100 years earlier, on December 19, 1917.
Fortunately for the Leafs organization, connecting a captaincy announcement to this game will not be difficult whatsoever. While Matthews stardom grew throughout last year, it was clear that the organization was using year 100 as a bridge between the past and present. His performances were often in sync with the history of the franchise too. In his NHL debut, for example, Matthews became the first Leaf to score a goal wearing the Leafs brand new logo. And then he scored three more that same night, because he’s Auston Matthews, and he’s better at hockey than you. That was just the beginning of the 100th season of the Maple Leafs franchise, but it was also year 001 of the Auston Matthews era.
Sure, Auston’s missed a few games recently with an upper-body injury. But whether he’s in the lineup or not shouldn’t influence how the Leafs decide to approach this situation.
On social media, the Leafs branded their centennial celebrations as year 001 — not for Matthews specifically, but for the influx of youth the Leafs were experiencing. At the home opener, they honoured former Leafs legends by retiring their numbers. They also built bronze statues for some of those players to immortalize them on Legends Row. Then there was the Centennial Classic on January 1st, when the Buds took their talents outdoors at BMO Field. And we all know how that one ended. Clearly, the arrival of Auston Matthews synchronized the growth of the team with celebrations of the past.While the 100th anniversary game is meant to conclude the first century of Leafs hockey, it also represents the official beginning of the next century. With respect to the future, Brendan Shanahan describes the Next Century Game game as follows:
“We’re now able to look ahead as we start to write the next great chapters in team history along with creating new generations of Leafs fans, which is an important part of this celebration.”
Obviously, the future of the Leafs revolves around Auston Matthews, and that won’t change anytime soon. There is no better way to start the Next Century than to allow their superstar to lead the team into the bright future he represents.
Although the Leafs avoid acknowledging that Matthews is the face of the franchise, they recently began to expand his role as a public figure. Matthews recently signed his first sponsorship deal with Scotiabank to promote the growth of the game.
— Auston Matthews (@AM34) December 7, 2017
Auston Matthews’ first sponsorship deal is noteworthy because the Leafs are known for their strict rules regarding the public image of their players, especially the younger ones. The timing of this announcement, however, is a bit peculiar. The Leafs could have allowed their superstar to sign his first sponsorship at any time during the season. The fact it happened a couple weeks before the Next Century Game (presented by Scotiabank!) shows the Leafs are actively growing Matthews public image as the first century of Leafs hockey comes to a close.
With this in mind, it should not surprise you if the Leafs expand his role on the team to include the duties of a captain in the near future. December 19th seems like the perfect time to make that happen.
Another way to explore the question of the Leafs captaincy is to investigate how other NHL teams handled similar situations.
Unfortunately, every team who chose a young captain did so during the offseason, but there was one exception. While the Penguins named Sidney Crosby their captain following his sophomore season, that wasn’t the first time they offered him the C. Crosby deferred the Penguins initial offer in January of his sophomore season because he felt he wasn’t ready. Clearly, the Penguins were not afraid to give Crosby the credit when they felt it was due, even if it meant a midseason change. Like Crosby in January 2007, Matthews is experiencing his sophomore season right now. The Leafs shouldn’t shy away either, especially when the perfect opportunity is scheduled to occur next week.
For whatever this speculation is worth to you, it is impossible to deny that Auston Matthews is the frontrunner to become the Leafs captain.
While the first century of Leafs hockey saw 18 different players wear the C for the team, Auston Matthews is destined to become number 19. His play on the ice is nothing short of spectacular, and his sponsorship with Scotiabank is anything but a sign that he is the face of the franchise.
Unfortunately, history suggests that the announcement might happen this summer, and Mike Babcock has flat-out stated that it won’t happen this season. If he is telling the truth, the Leafs would be missing out on a perfect opportunity. An opportunity to use a historical day for the franchise to acknowledge that Auston Matthews is the undisputed leader of this team. An opportunity to connect the past and the future in the most exciting way possible. An opportunity to make an announcement we’ll remember for a long, long time.