Almost two years ago to the day of their Saturday night matchup against the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Maple Leafs punctuated the worst season in franchise history by trading then-captain Dion Phaneuf to their division rivals in Ottawa. Sending Phaneuf off from the team hotel in Calgary on Feb. 9, 2016, the Leafs re-affirmed they were a long way from contending; all eyes were on the future, whatever it would hold. Fast-forward to February 2018, and the promised pain of Toronto’s rebuild has already given way to a playoff-calibre team stocked with young talent. The organization had a plan for their turnaround and stringently stuck to it, but going from the NHL’s basement to Top 10 status in the standings over 24 months didn’t come without a little luck, too. “Well, we got Auston [Matthews]. But what if we don’t?” head coach Mike Babcock said. “I remember when we got to three [in the draft lottery], I was jumping up in the living room. When we got to one, tears. People don’t understand. You need real players. You can do everything you want and put them in the right spot, but you need real players. If you’re going to put your name on the silver thing, you need a real group of players.” Toronto has gone more than 50 years without a plate on the Stanley Cup, and since Phaneuf’s departure they've opted not to name his successor at captain. That too has been a part of the Leafs’ overall plan, to let leaders emerge and develop on their own before one player is given the mantle only 18 others have ever held. Especially in a market as dissected as Toronto, the Leafs remain in no hurry to expedite the process of doling out a C.
Two years after Phaneuf trade, Leafs content to keep growing without a captain
TSN | Feb 10