The nature of the discussions surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs’ captaincy have been, by-and-large, presumptive. Not often does the conversation steer towards who will fill the void left by Dion Phaneuf’s departure in 2016, but when will a certain someone get the “C” stitched on their jersey.
That person, of course, is Auston Matthews — and rightfully so.
There’s no arguing that captains are getting younger; Connor McDavid, at age 19, was appointed to lead the Edmonton Oilers after his rookie campaign. One year later following his own inaugural season in Toronto, it appeared as if Matthews was destined for the same treatment after he logged 40 goals and brought his team within inches of a first-round playoff victory over Washington.
At that moment, all but the stitching on his jersey seemed to have been done.
But the Leafs’ reluctancy to do so last summer begged a bigger question: what does naming Matthews captain achieve?
For me, I don’t think it achieves anything at all.
The past week has been, for many quick critics, a watershed moment in the captaincy debate. In the Leafs’ current series against Boston, Matthews has fallen victim to Boston’s immovable defensive duo in Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy, having just two points to his name. In wake of falling into a 3-2 series deficit, the city of Toronto has collectively displayed its anger, beating down on Matthews’ performance with disappointment.
Some have slammed Matthews’ leadership while others have questioned his ability to perform under pressure — all expectations for a team’s star player today.
While these attacks are somewhat warranted as reflected in his play, I’ve begun to feel that patiently seeing a player’s growth over an extended period of time has lost it glamour. All the way to back the unforgettable rookie seasons of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin to McDavid’s overnight success — as an individual, at least — the expected growth period for young phenoms has shrunken to the size of a walnut.
In his own right, this current playoff series isn’t being viewed as a learning experience for Matthews. For all purposes, that was supposed to be last year.
This series has proved that Matthews, like many of his young counterparts, are still trying to find their footing in an unforgiving competitive environment. So why is anything but greatness being viewed as secondary?
A captaincy isn’t only an honour — it’s a responsibility. As the past two weeks have shown, Matthews is continuing to grapple with the distinct challenges of postseason hockey.
This doesn’t mean he’s unfit for the captaincy — there’s a reason why he’s been the centrepiece of the conversation for over a year now. His talent — 132 points in 144 games — alone shows he has what it takes to carry a team.
But there’s a place where he and this Leafs team have yet to reach yet, and handing over the captaincy like a god-given right isn’t going to solve the Leafs problems.
As the past two years have proven, having a captain isn’t what will turn the Leafs around. And after making the postseason back to back seasons with a team filled with young talent, Mike Babcock’s group isn’t expected to go anywhere. This team has some maturing to do, as does Matthews.
With this in hand, the moment the organization decides to slap the “C” on his jersey, Matthews will go from being under the magnifying glass to an industrial sized microscope. It’s not to the fault of the organization; it’s simply the nature of the Maple Leafs fanbase and media.
As the Leafs begin to push their way into the NHL’s elite, Mike Babcock and co. will be forced to make some decisions to ensure the long-term success of this team. Finding a captain will be one of them. But as one of the league’s youngest teams continues to find their stride, it isn’t what they need right now.