PARADISE, N.L. — There was no need to ask anyone here, on the opening day of training camp, who they thought should be the next captain of the Maple Leafs.
The voting, from the young and old in attendance at the Paradise Double Ice Complex, was crystal clear.
The face of the Maple Leafs here on The Rock is Auston Matthews. His No. 34 jersey was everywhere on Friday. Row after row being worn at both the Leafs practice sessions and scrimmage on Day 1, dwarfing all the other bright blue and white jerseys worn by those in attendance.
Oh, there was the odd John Tavares jersey, the odd Morgan Rielly, the occasional Mitch Marner, even a few vintage Doug Gilmours being worn — and why not? — but, overwhelmingly, the Matthews sweater was the most popular.
It was head coach Mike Babcock confirming on Friday what was reported here a day earlier — that a captain is clearly on the way, the Leafs’ first in many years.
It’s now only a matter of when. The thinking is the announcement will be made in Toronto, not here in Newfoundland, where the Leafs remain for the next four days.
The pending captaincy was part of the news on the first day of Leafs camp, where a new line that centres Matthews with William Nylander and Andreas Johnsson sparkled on Day 1, while a second line — depending on how you distinguish lines with the Leafs — was nowhere to be found.
Tavares is home on paternity leave, Marner is home waiting an eventual end to his contract dispute, and Zach Hyman is here, but probably won’t be ready to play on his bum knee for a month.
The limited lineup, the opportunities, the confirmation of the naming of a captain, shifted some of the storylines of the opening day of camp. Nylander is back, hoping not just to return to form, but to bring a level he’s never shown before, playing alongside Matthews after what was basically a lost season for the right winger.
How do the Leafs get better this season? Begin with Nylander, who scored seven goals last year and should be close to 30 this year. He finished with 27 points on a shortened season — he should be in the 70-point range this year.
And Matthews, the soon-to-be-captain, minced no words in talking about the Nylander situation of a year ago — which is even more relevant considering where the Marner contract snafu currently stands. He said of Nylander’s last year: “It’s no secret, the whole fiasco of last year, coming in late.”
“The whole fiasco” — that may be every-day talk in the NBA. But it’s pretty unusual talk for an NHL player.
Nylander didn’t sign until December, never really found his game all season long, didn’t play well in the post-season, and has vowed to come back to the kind of star-like status he expects of himself.
There is a lesson in this, of course, for Marner who, depending on recent reports, is either close or far away from signing — this thing seems to go minute-to-minute now — but the Nylander blueprint is one both the player and the team need to avoid. The Leafs paid heavily, financially and hockey wise, for a lost Nylander season. They’ve already repeated the error in the short term with Marner, carrying this into training camp.
They can’t repeat this into the season, can’t afford to have Marner regress in any way.
Babcock understands this completely in a year in which there is pressure on the coach to perform.
“I was joking with Willy, it must be nice to be back to about 196 pounds instead of about (the) 5,500 he was last year. When you’re carrying the weight of the world around and you’re a proud guy and you think you’re good and you want to be good and there’s nowhere to hide — that’s why it’s so important to get here and start on time and get a good feel going.”
Nylander, in camp, has spoken to Marner, who isn’t in camp. What did he say?
“That stays between me and Mitch.”
If Marner returns alongside Tavares and Nylander plays with Matthews, not missing a pile of games to injury, and the newfound speed that defenceman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot bring, the Leafs may be deeper and quicker than they’ve been in years.
It starts with Nylander, though. People forget he was probably the Leafs’ most dangerous forward against Washington in the playoffs three seasons back. He was ahead of Marner in development. That seems an eternity ago.
He was 20 then. He’s 23 now. He should be better. He wants to be better. Having talent is a gift. Wasting it is a sporting crime.
On a Friday in Paradise, N.L., there were no Nylander jerseys to be seen, except on the ice. One was enough on the first day of camp.