John Tavares named the 25th captain in Toronto Maple Leafs history

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It’s official: John Tavares has been named the 25th captain in Toronto Maple Leafs franchise history.

While the C is more of a symbolic designation for the fans and media to talk about than it is a hugely meaningful one to the team itself, I’d argue the Leafs are doing this exactly the right way and at exactly the right time — and with the coolest reveal possible in waiting until the player introductions on opening night at Scotiabank Arena.

Mike Babcock has been the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise since he was hired in May 2015. It was a major benefit to landing a coach so famously successful and large in personality — he could run interference in front of the media every day, expertly manage expectations for the group, and take the heat when necessary; better him than a young core of players trying to get its footing in the NHL.

As the team has progressed into a legitimate Cup contender and its young core has gained experience in the league while maturing as people and leaders, now was the right time to stitch the C on the right player’s sweater.

JT gets the C

The first hint the Leafs were going with Tavares came in Kyle Dubas’ answer to a question about what he was looking for in his future captain earlier this month:

“I think a lot about it. No disrespect to the other teams in the league; they all have great fan bases and they operate differently. Here, I saw when Dion was the captain the expectations in terms of the public handling of issues every day and the ability to remain calm and stoic as the water gets a little rough. Being able to be the calming presence is such a vital, vital thing when we do have a captain in time.”

Shortly thereafter, Babcock shared a similar list of criteria with a comparison to Kawhi Leonard:

“There was a guy who played for the Raptors last year, I don’t know if you remember his name. He came into town and he changed things overnight with an unbelievable demeanour, with a stick-to-it-iveness like I haven’t seen, with a competitive edge, not bothered by much, left all his talking to his play, and they were able to win the championship. And I thought he made the team better around him. To me, that’s leadership, that’s what they do — they bring it every single day.”

In the context of the Leafs‘ captaincy discussion, I don’t think you could mistake this for a description of anyone but John Tavares.

My feel for it is that Tavares was likely the captain-in-waiting since he signed back in July 2018 — the two sides talked about it in the club’s initial pitch — but the Leafs waited on handing him the letter on account of the fact that he hadn’t played a single game for the team yet. That’s partly out of respect for the group of qualified leaders who had been a part of the organization for years already, but they also wanted to see Tavares settle into the group first and establish his place on the team.

Tavares was already entering the market with insane expectations and there was no need to add further fuel to the fire before he had even gotten himself acclimated to a new city and organization. At the same time, Dubas was also new to the GM’s seat and needed to gain a proper feel for the dynamics within the team and dressing room before deciding if he really wanted to go ahead with naming a captain at all.

On the Matthews incident and his captaincy candidacy

Much discussion will center around this talking point, but it’s doubtful (in my view) that Auston Matthews’ error in judgment over the offseason was a factor in the decision.

Babcock and Dubas were hinting well before the news broke that the decision was already made and we’ve since learned they had no clue about the charges pending against Matthews until last Wednesday. It’s not impossible, but I doubt they suddenly switched course at the last moment to an entirely different candidate after deciding as an organization on one individual as the right face of the franchise for the next five-plus years.

Dubas and Babcock seemed to be quite content not having a captain at all if it wasn’t the right one, and prior to the Matthews news, Dubas never confirmed he would name one this Fall so much as he hinted strongly that he might. They could’ve just as easily have not named one at all if the Matthews incident changed their decision.

Babcock’s recent quote in a story over at The Athletic would also seem to suggest they wouldn’t simply name one to name one (or suddenly pivot to a “fallback” option):

“Yeah, you know what, what’s interesting about captaincies, it’s really interesting to me. When you name a captain, if you do it right, the players think they picked him, the owner thinks he picked him, the manager thinks he picked him, the coach thinks he picked him because it’s obvious to you. It’s all the same guy. I have a strong feeling in the end that’s what it’ll be like here.”

In my view, as far as Matthews’ candidacy goes, part of the approach in signing him to another long-term deal (hopefully) in five years’ time is passing the baton and telling him the C is now his. By that time, he’ll almost certainly be ready for it.

When it comes to the captaincy in Toronto specifically, you don’t simply appoint one, hope he grows into the role, and live with the odd speed bump along the way. That might work out okay in Arizona, but in Toronto, you’re placing an unnecessary burden and distraction on a young player if he’s not totally ready for all that comes with the heightened responsibility. A bad day with the media, an indiscretion away from the rink, a slip of the tongue, a decision not to talk to reporters one day, or not lifting a stick at center ice after a home game can snowball on a captain in a hurry in this market.

Last week, Matthews asked about the new assistant coaches behind the bench and sarcastically responded, “Do you want me to give you their whole life story?” These kinds of flippant responses are pretty commonplace with Matthews, and while I hold no judgment — I’d be exactly the same way if I was asked the same banal question five days in a row — it means he’s better off without the bother at this stage of his life and career. And that’s perfectly okay. Be a leader by example, score 40-50 goals, and take a few days off from the media when you need it.

As taken-out-of-context as Matthews’ “shit happens” quote was last playoffs, if he had said that with a C on his chest, it absolutely would’ve been an even bigger media talking point. That sounds ridiculous, especially considering Matthews meant nothing by it, but it’s a fact of life in Toronto. There are journalists with bad intentions in this market and they have significant platforms of influence. Negative stories about the Leafs rake in clicks and views due to how passionately loved and hated the team is across the hockey world. Whoever wears the C naturally has a target on his back.

The right choice

One argument you often hear against Tavares as Leafs captain is that he wasn’t a draft pick of the organization. It’s not a convincing one knowing he chose to be here over some extremely attractive destinations, chose to take max-term to return home to the craziest hotbed in hockey, and left some money on the table to do it. Leafs fans fantasized for years about an elite hockey player from the GTA coming home to chase Cups in the middle of his prime — so who cares who drafted him, as if he had any control over that anyway?

The second argument is that Tavares is a bore — as in not fun or interesting off the ice. This is a convincing argument for Tavares’ captaincy, not against it. This market is a zoo of white noise and manufactured controversy already. The captain of the team should give the media zero rope to hang him with. The fact that Tavares can take any question in stride, never flinch or break face, and answer questions — no matter how ridiculous — in calm, measured, diplomatic tones is a major asset for this role. He’s as polished as they come in this respect — no doubt honed by the experience of captaining a team for many years through mostly-tough times in a not-insignificant market in Long Island (he also started his media training a decade and a half ago, when he was the first-ever exceptional-status player in the OHL).

The leadership group has always mattered far more than which specific individual wears the C, and the Leafs had 3-4 good candidates to choose from. But the fact that Tavares is so qualified to take on the unique challenges the captaincy presents in the Toronto market makes this an easy decision. Who wears the C may be an overrated thing to those in the room, but it’s not to the media and fan base, and the responsibilities that come with standing up and answering questions every single day are significant ones in Toronto.

It’s also often argued that the captain should always be the team’s best player, but this is not as simple as the question makes it seem, at least not on this Leafs team. Matthews is the most talented player, sure, but Tavares takes on the toughest matchups, has the more rounded 200-foot game at this stage, is consistently healthy, and — oh yeah — he scored 47 goals last year (he’s second in the league in goals over the past two years, 11th in points). This is a top-five player at his position, on the right side of 30 and at the peak of his powers. He’s a model citizen with a wife and a newborn who has been through plenty of adversity in the league and came out the other side of it a stronger person and player.

The fact of the matter is that Tavares sets the tone for this organization in how he plays, practices, prepares, and treats people in and outside of the rink. He checked every single box.