Where will John Tavares rank among the all-time Leafs captains?

Photo credit:Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Filipe Dimas
6 months ago
John Tavares’ legacy with the Toronto Maple Leafs has been a fascinating one to watch unfold. A hometown kid born and raised in Toronto to a blue collar family, grew up cheering for the Leafs and was the rare superstar who actually chose to come home and play in Toronto when so many others – from Stamkos and Gretzky to even Shohei Ohtani – haven’t. On paper, it’s exactly the kind of homecoming story that Toronto sports fans have been craving, and yet it hardly feels that way. 
John Tavares is without a doubt liked by the fanbase, but he doesn’t seem to be adored in the way that Sundin, Gilmour or Clark once were. So where exactly will Tavares ultimately rank in the hierarchy of all-time captains of the Toronto Maple Leafs when his career comes to an end?
The easy answer is to point to the postseason and say the results of his team on the ice will determine his legacy amongst the fans off the ice. Tavares’ Maple Leafs have yet to experience the sort of deep postseason run that Sundin and Clark captained their team to numerous times – with each of them making the Conference Finals at least twice. Gilmour, interestingly, never captained the Maple Leafs out of the first round, and even missed the playoffs entirely during one of his three seasons as captain, but often gets leeway due to his involvement as an alternate captain during Clark’s tenure.
If Tavares can help lead the Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup during his tenure, he’ll no doubt shoot up the rankings of all-time Leafs captains. Yet even then, it’s hard to picture John Tavares ever being seen as a greater Leaf than Sundin, Gilmour or Clark, even though none of those guys even made it to the Stanley Cup Finals with Toronto, let alone won the whole thing. 
Part of the reason for that could be that Tavares isn’t the face of the team like many captains of the past have been. You think back to the 2000s, you think of Mats Sundin, the 90s are Gilmour and Clark, before that we have teams that were clearly defined by Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Dave Keon, George Armstrong, and Ted Kennedy. Decades from now, this era will almost certainly be seen as Matthews’ team, not Tavares’. This isn’t a knock on Tavares at all, JT91 has still managed to put up nearly a point per game during his tenure in blue and white – he just happens to be playing alongside one of the NHLs all-time greatest goalscorers and one of the more charismatic personalities in the league.
So what’s the answer? When it’s all done, where will Tavares rank compared to the legends who came before him? Will we see his number retired, or a new addition added to legends row? As it stands now, Tavares seems to fall in this strange purgatory of not quite being on the same level of Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler, or George Armstrong, but also a tier above some more forgotten about captains such as Dion Phaneuf, Rob Ramage or Bob Davidson. 
If his career continues at its current pace, that’s where Tavares’ legacy likely stays. A great captain who was never quite able to find that extra gear to bring his team over the hump, and left fans wondering what could have been. Of course, no sports story is ever finished until the final whistle sounds. Over his career, Tavares has shown an ability to step up and end some lengthy droughts, first by scoring the series winning goal that sent the Islanders to the second round for the first time in well over a decade, and then doing the same in Toronto. If Tavares can not only win the cup in Toronto, but be a major factor in doing so, whether that’s by leading the team in scoring along the way, or nabbing some clutch goals, it goes without saying that he would then be vaulted into the upper echelon of Leafs captains. Being a passenger simply won’t be enough, Toronto sports fans have come to expect that the captain is the team leader, and have been waiting for Tavares to prove he can lead this team to greatness.
With over 1000 career NHL points now to his name, Tavares has the experience, skill, and composure necessary to become the next great Toronto legend. He’s already a borderline case for the Hall of Fame, and has a chance to cement his induction in the coming years. As his contract approaches its end, fans will be eager to find out whether there will be a second chapter to the Tavares saga in Toronto, and whether that chapter comes with the kind of steep discount to his salary that would not only help General Manager Brad Treliving build a competitive team, but would also do wonders in endearing him to the blue and white faithful.
At the end of the day, John Tavares is living the dream of so many hockey fans. Born and raised in Toronto, he’s come home to captain his childhood team, with a real chance of bringing home the Stanley Cup. Whether that story and his legacy go on to have a happy ending remains to be seen.
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