It took nearly half the season to figure out, but the Toronto Marlies have created their leadership group. The club announced today that forward Ben Smith will be the eighth captain in franchise history, with Colin Greening and Rich Clune supporting him.
The decision comes at an interesting time, and with a bit of an interesting conclusion. Heading into today, the 29-year-old Smith has never worn the C for a high-level hockey team. In fact, he’s only worn an A twice, once in his senior year with Boston College in 2009/10, and once with the Rockford IceHogs in 2012/13, a year before his stretch of NHL regularity began. Smith is also far from the most tenured Marlies player, having played just 54 games with the team since 2015/16. At the start of the year, it was presumed that the driving force that kept Smith in the organization was his qualification for an expansion draft quota.
Needless to say, none of that screams lock, especially from a player with a relatively calm on-ice demeanour. So why him? Why now?
Ben Smith puts the Marlies up 3-2 late in the third period. Just a great play all around; Rinat Valiev stretch pass to Kerby Rychel, who finds Jeremy Bracco on the other side, who puts it right on Smith's tape. Rychel & Smith have points on all 3 goals tonight. pic.twitter.com/nTQe3oJqf3
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 16, 2017
Back in November, I wrote a piece about why I thought it was fine for the Marlies to be without an official leadership group. A major part of my argument was centred around how Toronto deployed and rotated their roster. In essence, putting a C on a player’s chest means that you need to be pretty certain that they’re going to play for you every single night; you don’t want to have a Captain that could get called up right after you name them (Trevor Smith, who played just eight games for the Marlies after being named captain, comes to mind), and you definitely don’t want a player that would be better off in the press box on many nights to stay in the lineup just because they have a letter.
I’d have to imagine that this mindset played a huge factor in giving Smith the edge. Despite not even being at the half-way point, Toronto has just five players remaining that have played every game for them this year (and by extension, only those five have missed fewer than three games). There is no way that Dmytro Timashov or Kerby Rychel were about to be named the captain of this team, so that brings you down to three veterans; Smith, Chris Mueller, and Colin Greening.
Mueller joins Smith in the “never worn a C” club, and has less seniority in the organization than Smith. Greening has two years of experience wearing the letter in college and has been around for about as long as Smith has, and as such was my favourite to get the nod back at the start of the year.
But from a performance perspective, Smith has proven to be the much better bet to still be without a missed game at the end of the year. Presently, Smith has more goals (15, to go with 12 assists) than Greening has points (13), and the difference in defensive ability doesn’t offset that. If Adam Brooks and Jeremy Bracco begin to perform at a level that forces themselves into the lineup every night, a possibility once the season comes to a close, Greening is more likely than Smith to succumb to the rotation.
“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” -Sheldon Keefe, November 26th
As for the “why now”, I think one could look to the call-up of Frederik Gauthier and Mike Babcock’s ensuing words of praise for the youngster as a “nail in the coffin” for Smith’s shot at being on the cusp of a call-up. While Smith often found himself on the positive end of the tiebreakers in the fourth-line-centre debate last year, he’s not even playing the position most nights now (instead going back to his natural Right Wing) and seems to be completely undiscussed as a call-up candidate. I’d wager that Miro Aaltonen would be the next choice after Gauthier and, if Babcock is looking for something specific, it’s possible that Mueller and Greening are at least level in the conversation if things got really thin for an instant.
In short: I believe Ben Smith is the captain of this team partially because he was a valued veteran presence, but especially because he’s good enough at the AHL level to hold a lineup spot every night but not good enough at the NHL level to re-draw the interest of the Leafs this season. Is it the perfect, optimal decision? I’m not sure, but it’s at least one that you can pick apart and see a backing logic for.
As for the A’s, those are no-brainers. If Clune was an every night talent, he would undoubtedly get the letter, and Greening is a fantastic, C-worthy presence as well. As a trio, and with the support of players like Mueller and defenceman Vincent LoVerde, the Marlies are in good shape on the leadership front. That some of them finally have letters on their chests is more a matter of technicality than anything, but now it’s a technicality that’s out of the way.
Smith joins Marc Moro, Ben Ondrus, Alex Foster, Ryan Hamilton, Trevor Smith, Troy Bodie, and Andrew Campbell in the list of team captains since their first season in 2005/06. It is likely that we will see the trio wear their letters for the first time as early as tonight when they take on the Laval Rocket in Place Bell.---
Thanks for reading! Hopefully you enjoyed this post. If you did, don't hesitate to share it on Twitter or Facebook; having more readers will help the site grow. As well, consider a subscription if you're interested in reading additional work that isn't available to guests.