Why stripping Tavares of captaincy could be a necessary move for Leafs

May 14 2023, 4:20 pm

If anything is obvious after this year’s playoff run, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in need of a big change.

Listen to anyone who’s followed the team closely ā€” or not ā€” and they’ll find their way to offer their opinion about the changes Toronto needs to make after crashing out in the second round of the playoffs to the Florida Panthers.

Whether it’s your neighbour, your relative, or someone in your group chat who claims to have been old teammates with one of the players, it’s hard to avoid an extremely wide range of opinions on what exactly the Leafs should do next.

After the jubilation of beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in round one, the team’s five-game defeat to the Panthers left just about everyone searching for answers to what went wrong.

Is it time to get rid of head coach Sheldon Keefe? General manager Kyle Dubas is on an expiring contract, so is he out the door? Is Toronto going to trade one of their key forwards?

But while a big trade or a firing might seem like the easiest solution on paper, there’s a bold-but-possible move that could keep Toronto’s core intact while also setting a precise level of new expectations: stripping John Tavares of his captaincy.

Tavares, who had just one point (and no goals) in Toronto’s five games against the Panthers, has held the captaincy for four years now. In NHL terms, that’s hardly a drop in the bucket.

But it’s not exactly a short amount of time either: it’s long enough to start and graduate from university or high school, see a global pandemic come and somewhat go away, and enough time to see Taylor Swift record five separate albums.

Four years is the length of a standard political term, and while no one elected Tavares or spends their tax dollars on him, there’s no reason why his appointment necessarily needs to be a lifetime one, either.

The actual circumstances of naming Tavares captain were, to put it lightly, not ideal.

In the fall of 2019, Toronto remained without a captain heading into Tavares’ second season in Toronto. Three realistic candidates emerged: Tavares, a then 22-year-old Auston Matthews, and defenceman Morgan Rielly.

Many thought young Matthews would be taking the reins ā€” until it emerged that he was charged with disorderly conduct for an incident late at night in an Arizona parking lot, where the Leafs forward allegedly approached a parking attendant’s vehicle, attempted to open the door before walking away and lowering his pants to expose his underwear.

A no-nonsense “family man” (did you hear his family just had their third child?) who speaks in a monotone that would make a lawnmower jealous, Tavares always appeared to be a safe second choice.

He’d done it before with the New York Islanders, was highly respected league-wide, and had the Leafs not had Matthews, it would’ve been a natural choice to do so anyway.

He was a former first-overall pick like Matthews but just about the polar opposite in every other way off the ice: reserved, quiet, and off social media.

It was clear that Matthews blew that shot at captain due to his immature antics, with Tavares getting the nod just over a week later.

Matthews has avoided major off-ice incidents since and led the NHL with 188 goals over that period. Winning the NHL’s Hart Trophy as league MVP last season, he’s been the clear best Leaf pretty much since he stepped onto the ice as a rookie and remains the future of the franchise.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s earned a shot at being captain either, though.

But Tavares’ captaincy hasn’t delivered the desired results in Toronto, and surely he’d be the first to tell you that.

Swapping out the “C” for an “A” wouldn’t be a total indictment of his ability or his place within the locker room, but it’d rather be a constant reminder that nothing is guaranteed in the NHL.

It’d be a statement move without a major roster shakeup and a kick in the pants to Tavares who’s got the league’s seventh-biggest cap hit for next season. With Tavares’ no-movement clause, he can veto any trade and remain in Toronto, but nothing in his deal says he has to wear the captaincy on his sweater.

He’d still be able to play big minutes and be a key factor on the team, just not necessarilyĀ the face of the team moving forward.

Rielly, Matthews, and Mitch Marner currently occupy the team’s assistant captain roles.

Toronto doesn’t have too many strong candidates after that: William Nylander getting the captaincy might make for more of a media headache than it’s worth, and outside of everyone previously mentioned, Toronto has just one player signed past next season in their regular top-four defencemen or top-six forwards: defenceman Jake McCabe.

Given that McCabe was a trade deadline acquisition with just 32 regular season and playoff games in Toronto, he doesn’t exactly fit the bill of the team’s next captain.

Stripping Tavares of the captaincy might be a band-aid solution to the Leafs’ larger issues, but bold moves are sometimes necessary to change things around in a strong-but-still-flawed roster.

Toronto has plenty of time to figure out the solutionĀ for next season, but removing the head of the snake could be a bold but impactful first step.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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