Winning without a captain
Their best player was just 21 and was already one of the game’s biggest stars. They had a sniper who was good enough to play for Team Canada, and a journeyman veteran whose leadership qualities had him previously wearing the ‘C’ on his jersey.
Any one of them could have been the captain. In the end, the team went with no one. Sound familiar?
We’re not talking about Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Patrick Marleau. But as the Toronto Maple Leafs head into this season once again without a captain, there’s a lot that they can learn from Boston’s Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk, who went six straight years without a so-called leader of the pack.
No, they didn’t crumble from the lack of leadership. Instead, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972 — something the Leafs, Golden Knights and five other NHL teams without a captain are hoping to emulate.
“They didn’t know who to make captain,” Bucyk said of those Bruins teams. “They probably didn’t want to name one, because who are you going to make? We had Phil and Bobby, as well as Teddy Green and Ed Westfall. We had a lot of guys who could have been captain.”
The truth is that Bucyk had been Boston’s captain in 1966-67, where they finished sixth in a sixteam league, but management took it away the following year so he could concentrate on just playing hockey.
“I was never vocal in the dressing room,” said Bucyk. “They wanted someone to kind of be that kind of leader.”
That’s the downside of being a captain. While wearing the ‘C’ is an honour no player would turn down, it can also be a burden if things aren’t going well.
We saw it with Dion Phaneuf, who seemed dragged down by the pressure of captaining a Leafs team that couldn’t get off the ground. And we started to see it during Max Pacioretty’s and Erik Karlsson’s final years in Montreal and Ottawa, respectively.
“Max can come here and just play hockey now,” Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee said of Pacioretty. “Doesn’t have to be captain — won’t be the captain — we’ve got 23 captains. We’re going to play and he’s just going to play.”
The Knights have only been in the league for one season, but they have history on their side. Last season, the expansion franchise led the Pacific Division with 109 points and then reached the Stanley Cup final with no captain. In 2014, the Rangers did the same after trading captain Ryan Callahan during the season.
Maybe that’s why the Leafs decided to go a third straight year without a captain. After all, it’s not like they don’t have options.
Tavares was a captain with the New York Islanders, while Marleau was once captain of the San Jose Sharks. Matthews isn’t wearing a letter on his jersey this season, but like a young Orr, he might already be the team’s onice leader when it comes to skill and ability.
Toss in Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri and 2017 Stanley Cup winner Ron Hainsey and there’s hardly a lack of leadership in the dressing room.
“I’m surprised that so many teams aren’t going with a captain this year,” said Bucyk. “I don’t think it will hurt them. Players always seem to come together.”
That’s what happened with the Bruins. In Bucyk’s first season without the ‘C,’ he scored 30 goals and 69 points. At the time, it was his most productive year of his career. Even without the letter on his jersey, he was still the de facto leader. After all, his teammates had nicknamed him “Chief.”
Maybe that will happen with the Leafs. Maybe as the season goes on, it will become apparent that Tavares is the team’s leader, if not Matthews or Rielly or someone else. That’s sort of what happened in Vegas last season, where Deryk Engelland assumed the captain’s role in receiving the Clarence Campbell Bowl after winning the Western Conference championship.
Which raises an interesting — yet highly premature — question: If the Leafs were to win, would Tavares or Matthews get to hoist the Cup?