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Why John Tavares was always the right choice to captain the Leafs

We'll never know for sure if last week's news affected the decision, but Tavares makes the most sense to wear the 'C' in Toronto regardless.

When Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas addressed media during the first intermission of Wednesday’s season-opening victory at Scotiabank Arena, the topic was John Tavares, who was officially unveiled as the franchise’s 25th captain moments before the Leafs clashed with the Ottawa Senators. But let’s face it: the topic was also Auston Matthews.

News broke last week of disorderly conduct charges against Matthews alleging that, last May 26, he and some friends tried to enter the vehicle of a female security guard at 2:00 a.m and Matthews flashed his underwear. The allegations spawned important discussions on the problem of what some men believe is appropriate behavior. Another offshooting topic was the Leafs’ undetermined captaincy and whether the charges against Matthews, which he had not revealed to the team before last week, had cost him the right to wear the letter.

So during the first intermission Wednesday, before diving into any sincere discussion of Tavares’ newfound honor, someone had to cut the tension and get the Matthews question out of the way. Thankfully, it came on question 2. So did the Matthews scandal cost him the captaincy?

“No, not at all,” Dubas said. “This was exactly what he had planned, what we had discussed well before that, so it didn’t affect our decision making whatsoever.”

We can speculate forever on whether that’s true. There’s no way to ever know, so we can only take Dubas’ words at face value. But regardless of whether the Matthews news changed any of the team’s plans, there’s a strong case to be made Tavares was the best choice for the job anyway.

Tavares already captained his previous team, the New York Islanders, for five seasons. He’s seven years older than Matthews, with an additional 561 games of experience, playoffs included. Even if we acknowledge Matthews as the franchise’s true star – the team-high salary cap hit suggests as much ­– Matthews’ contract actually ends before Tavares’ does. Matthews goes UFA in 2024, Tavares in 2025. And, as much as the hockey world enjoys making jokes about the Tavares Pajama (actually a blanket) meme, it says something. The man has lived and breathed the franchise for most of his life. Former Leaf captains Wendel Clark and Darryl Sittler congratulated Tavares after Wednesday's 5-3 win, and Tavares said it meant the world to him. It also moved him deeply when the Leafs surprised him with the captaincy by stealthily outfitting his three-week old son, Jace, with a mini jersey sporting the ‘C.’

“I’ll never forget that moment,” Tavares said. “It’s been an amazing three weeks. And to see him there with it on, to be the one to tell me, was very emotional and really, really special. It’s hard to really describe it.”

It's likely no candidate assigned as much significance to the captaincy as Tavares. That alone gave him a leg up, not to mention the fact everyone on the team reveres him like a captain already.

“Johnny’s is the perfect guy for the job,” said defenseman Morgan Rielly, named a permanent alternate captain Wednesday. “He’s poised, he’s confident as a person, carries himself like a true professional, comes to work every day.”

“He’s worn it before, he knows what it’s like and the responsibility that goes with it,” said Matthews, who will split alternate-captain duties with Mitch Marner. “He’s just a guy who comes in every day and does his job. He’s humble about it, works hard every day and sets a good example for everybody.”

“I don’t care who you are – it’s pretty special to say the least," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "But he’s the kind of man, leader and person that our guys look up to. He does everything right every day. He’s all about winning. He’s not about John, he’s about winning. He’s a great example to all of us. When I ask him a question, he doesn’t think, ‘Is this good for John’? He thinks ‘Is this good for the team?’ He’s a man. So I think it’s great.”

The next logical question to table after the game was how Matthews felt not earning the 'C.'

“I’m not disappointed,” he said, shrugging off the notion with a little chuckle. “I’m happy to be wearing a letter in general and just playing hockey with this team. We’ve got a special group.”

‘Group’ is the operative word. Tavares is the captain, but the Leafs will continue to lead by committee. Dubas singles out Tavares, Rielly, Matthews, Marner, defenseman Jake Muzzin, left winger Zach Hyman and goaltender Frederik Andersen as Toronto's leadership core. The team knew Matthews and Marner deserved to be honored as key members of that group but, as Dubas acknowledged, they are, at 22 years old, the two youngest members of that group, which is why they’ll defer to Tavares , 29, and Rielly, 25.

We can speculate on whether it was always Toronto’s intention to play the captaincy out this way. But, in hindsight, maybe Tavares was the best pick no matter what.

“We lost a couple veteran guys that had a big influence in our locker room, and we’ve gotten some huge steps from our younger guys who are molding into great leaders themselves,” Tavares said. “I’ve got to rely on those guys, and having a strong leadership group and a strong team is what makes a really good captain. So I’m just going to go out there and be myself and not really change a whole lot and deal with things as they come. Just go out there, have fun and enjoy it.”

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