In his post-game scrum after last night’s 5-1 victory over the Belleville Senators, Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe was asked about his plans as far as naming a Team Captain at some point this season. His response was as follows.

“We’re going to continue to roll with it. We have a plan, and that plan is to just kind of let things themselves, not push it, and not rush to anything while things are going well as a team. You want to make sure we make good decisions, regardless of what that is. We’re not set on what we’re going to do in terms of a need to name somebody this or that. But we do want to let things evolve and take place as it’s going to naturally, make sure we make the obvious decisions and the right decisions”

It was an interesting question to ask at that exact point in time, but a fair one nonetheless. As it stands, the team is poised to go without a captain for the first time in team history, having previously had the role filled by Marc Moro, Ben Ondrus, Alex Foster, Ryan Hamilton, Trevor Smith, Troy Bodie, and Andrew Campbell over the past several years.

Notice a pattern? I’m sure you did; typically, these were players in their mid-late 20s that had their NHL odds greatly minimized relegated to “might get a call up”, that earned their stripes within the organization and had gained the trust of the staff. Typically speaking, they were also players that were locks to stay in the lineup every night, so long as they weren’t up with the Leafs or out with an injury. Being told to simply take a night off was out of the question.

All of these patterns are pretty normal when you take a look at the rest of the AHL. Here’s what we know about the league’s 23 captains this year.

  • They are almost always veterans. The youngest of the bunch is Patrick Brown of the Charlotte Checkers, who is a “child” at 25 years old. The average age of the group is a little over 30; these are players that are long past their shot at the show.
  • Nine of these players are first-year captains, but the bulk has stuck around for a little bit. There’s usually an expiration date as players hop around the pros in hopes of trying to find a preferable route up to the top (only Tom Kostopoulos is above three years, and even he’s had multiple tours of duty with Wilkes-Barre to add those up), but they’re players that are expected to stay with the team. The average captain has in their fourth or fifth year with their club.
  • A handful of these players have reputations for being captain type players. Nine of them have previously worn the C for other teams, signifying that it’s a part of their resume and that it’s a part of what many teams look for.
  • They make it into the lineup. So far this season, Team Captains have played in 80.2% of their team’s games. That number balloons to 91% when you take out just four players; Trevor Smith and Mike Blunden, who were late cuts from their NHL clubs, Kostopoulos, who has struggled with injuries, and Erik Condra, who has had a bit of both of those problems arise.

In fact, just one of those Captains, to my knowledge, has been scratched more than once as a roster choice (Garrett Mitchell of Hershey). In theory you can pin that on captains being good players as well, but then you have situations like Rod Pelley; a fantastic leader and person, and once a strong two-way forward in this league, but he continues to draw into Stockton’s lineup almost every night despite having 1 point in 17 games (a four-point pace). The player is obviously struggling to the point of roster detriment, but you’ve made a commitment to them, and it’s near impossible to shake that off now without it being a problem.

Let’s take this all into account with the Marlies. To fit a proper captain’s mould, you’re likely looking for a player that plays every game, has tenure, and has been around the role before. A player that’s assigned to be your leader, your face, that’s built for the mould. Here’s the thing, knowing how this team is built… I’m not sure that really applies to anyone this year.

For example, look at the sheer difficulty this team has with regularly slotting players into the lineup. Due to unheard of depth for this level, the Marlies are regularly scratching players that would be playing on the first three lines or top two pairings on most other AHL teams. At the 20 game mark, only five players have remained in the lineup for all 20 games, and only ten have missed two or fewer. Toronto has eleven skaters that have missed at least a quarter of the team’s games, four that have played fewer than half, and then there’s poor Michael Paliotta, who went from playing 52 games for Hartford with second-pairing numbers to drawing in just twice behind a stacked defensive core.

Toronto does their best to get their players as many reps as they can, and injuries either within their team or up top will likely thin the herd a bit down the stretch. But if you name a captain now, you’re left with some you basically have to play. Andrew Campbell is a good example of this; he was no doubt an exemplary example of what you’d like a Captain to be on and off the ice, but there were definitely stretches where the veteran was hard to argue as a clear-cut option to be in the lineup. Despite this, he played all but one game in 2016/17, and in the year prior, missed just ten, even with a Leafs call-up taken into account.

Because of how the modern-day Marlies have built themselves, emphasizing youth and development over making a smaller-scale, grittier version of an old-school NHL team, the team does have the benefit of having veterans that are no-doubt quality players. Ben Smith and Chris Mueller are top six forwards, Colin Greening can slot wherever he wants, and Vincent LoVerde is at least a top-four defenceman at this level. But can you afford to give them teflon minutes? What happens, for example, if Adam Brooks and/or Jeremy Bracco start to click and push one of the forwards out of a spot? Do they have to keep sitting? Does someone else get slid down without actually exhibiting failure? Or do you have a captain that you aren’t comfortable with constantly dressing? On defence, it’s a foregone conclusion that absolutely no one is safe from the press box this year, given the quantity and quality of the group, so LoVerde is almost immediately axed from the list.

That’s unfortunate for another reason; he’s the only one of the group that has any sort of experience being a captain, having done so for several years for the Machester Monarchs / Ontario Reign. After him, the team’s combined captaining experience at this level is a handful of games where Rich Clune took Campbell’s place in 2015/16. Clune’s another guy that would be a great fit if it weren’t for the fact that he’s scratched more often than he plays. While I think he’d be fine with that balance, it defeats the purpose of having a player wear a letter.

When you bring this all together, you find a hockey team that is built in a way that’s completely non-conformist to the rest of the league. And you know what? That’s a big reason why they’ve been successful; exploiting depth, playing a different style of hockey, and not making much of a pecking order out of the roster has let players be themselves without too much on-or-off ice pressure.

So maybe they don’t need to take a player and a push pin and secure their spot in the wall. The most important part of leadership isn’t necessarily that letter on the chest, but how you carry yourself and how the who group carries each other, and it seems like the team has, at the very least, a sufficient group of voices that are all driven and working together at the moment. Keeping it this way still allows for the Greening / Smith / Mueller / LoVerde / Clune type players to be guiding figures and take care of the little responsibilities (ref talk, ceremonial faceoffs, PR, etc), but keeps them honest in their performance as well.

There very well might be a value to having that even-looking, everyone is in this together type playing field. As it stands, it seems to be working pretty well, so I wouldn’t blame them if they let it ride for the forseeable future.

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