1219 for publication April 28, 2017
Who’s the newest captain of the Leafs going to be?
The question was first raised by “Mike,” a long-serving friend of mine and a lifelong subscriber to the Maple Leaf lifestyle. These days his calendar is filled with figuring out where all the pieces fit, what new pieces they’ll need, and it’s not like he’s alone.
A few generations of Leaf fans, some able to cheer their heroes forward with more than a quick-fix on to base their enthusiasm on, are enjoying the luxury of “looking ahead” as opposed to looking back, at old glories in the fading rear-view mirror. We expect these legions to grow considering the numbers coming out of the closet after years of submerging their backing and allegiance.
Based on the performance of the present Leafs, holding a top team in hockey down to six games decided by one goal, eight periods of extra-fun hockey played over six games, and only one concluded without overtime, underlines how the Leafs came that close to upsetting “number one” over the regular season.
By mid-term it was expected the Leafs were a better team, a competitive team. No-one knew how long it would last, or how it would translate into a playoff atmosphere. Now they find themselves the toast of Leaf fans coast-to-coast. Even better, there are those inside hockey and other fans who admire what they’ve accomplished.
The reality will come October ’17 when much more will be expected of them, or else.
In the meantime let’s get back to this new Leaf’s choice for captain. At present Toronto has four “A’s.” In my opinion, they should continue that format through the coming season. Realistically, I’m figuring if they don’t pick-up Jonathan Toews or Erik Karlsson in a deal in the off-season, (yeah, right,) there are two outstanding choices for captain in the fold right now. Mike Rielly, and/or Auston Matthews. The other Mike, my pal Mike, thinks it goes to Matthews, right now, no hesitation, no contest.
Having been around the NHL scene, watching captains come and go on many teams, I’ve often found the next captain selected was often not the slam dunk he seemed to be. It’s not always the team’s best player standing on skates. It’s not the oldest, nor the youngest, and there’s where we are with a captain-in-waiting for Toronto. That’s the obvious dilemma in dealing with a popularity contests pitted against cold, hard, necessity.
Past Leafs were a mixed bag. Example George Armstrong was an excellent “C.” Yet Dave Keon hated the assignment. Both were very private people, the perfect example of straightforward service, and unmistakable disregard.
See, the captain wears many off-ice hats, he’s the buffer between the front office, and the coaches when a wrong turn is made by one or the other parties. A captain is an ombudsman, often burdened with minor aggravations, disputes between players and coaching staff, someone to fill a required date at a hospital, the kinds of public relation requirements all teams assume once the season begins.
That availability of players is often disrupted with team priority requirements for injury rehab, changes in the lineups, reassignment to the minors, treatments, and family matters.
But by and large, the captain is the face of the on-ice product. Barring injury he must be an everyday player and a front-man, someone with the presence to settle internal disputes between teammates, management, media and coaches. For that he uses his standing within the team and his trust and perceived impartiality to settle disputes for the good of the team.
That area alone is the big responsibility.
Within those considerations, Rielly at age 23, has shown improvement in his standing and grasp of the NHL game. It’s improving at a rapid pace for a young defensive player. The difference between the two, is summed up in Rielly’s longer range of eon-the-job experience.
The good news may be having four A’s carry the load for the next two seasons and then put the right man in line for the job. It will allow the next captain of the Leafs to show his leadership and talents in that area. Keeping in mind these two excellent candidates to be the “players public face,” will ideally be a long term assignment.
What’s the rush? Looks like the talent will be there, on the job, when the time comes for the Leafs to “C.”