Do The Leafs Have Their Next Captain?

TORONTO (Mar. 3) — There may be an unspoken element among the players acquired by Lou Lamoriello in the days before the National Hockey League trade deadline. Given the Maple Leafs prevail in a vacuum of leadership, perhaps the long–time general manager obtained a “bridge” captain to succeed Dion Phaneuf.

Providing the Toronto brass maintains he can still perform at a reasonably high level, 32–year–old center Brooks Laich could be a splendid choice to wear the ‘C’ next season and help consolidate one of the NHL’s youngest teams. This is merely a hunch, mind you, and not based on information or conjecture. Nor am I suggesting it because Laich made his NHL debut on my 44th birthday (Feb. 3, 2003). Rather, it is governed by the inescapable conclusion that the Washington Capitals — perhaps Stanley Cup–bound — unloaded one of their most popular and character–rich players in the trade, last weekend, for Daniel Winnik. This was evident on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center when the Capitals provided Laich a moving video–board tribute for his 742 games of service. As the newest Maple Leaf strained his neck upward, fighting back tears, the capacity audience accorded him a heartfelt ovation; to which Laich responded by raising his gloved–hands and applauding in return. It was a genuine moment of affection between city and veteran athlete.

FSCN0033edited-XBROOKS LAICH ACKNOWLEDGES OVATION FROM WASHINGTON FANS WEDNESDAY. SPORTSNET IMAGE

The scene was witnessed on TV by hockey viewers in Toronto — many of which were presumably unaware of the impact Laich (pronounced “Like”) made during his years with the Capitals. Minutes earlier, in the opening of the Sportsnet telecast, Elliotte Friedman had provided a typically–revealing interview with the Saskatchewan native, who declared the raw emotion of his quick return to the United States capitol. It was obvious, during his exchange with Friedman, to detect why Laich is so loftily considered; why his temperament and pedigree would qualify him as an ideal captain for the youthful Maple Leafs of 2016–17.

I view this, to be clear, as a one–year circumstance — the term remaining on Laich’s contract and bloated, $4.5–million salary–cap hit. The Capitals wanted nothing to do with that figure and waived the forward prior to making the deal for Winnik. Alex Ovechkin is the uncontested leader in Washington; Laich had progressively become a spare part on the NHL’s best team this season. Here in Toronto, he could fill a valuable and coveted role while the Leafs work into the line–up such big–league toddlers as William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Brown, perhaps Mitch Marner and maybe even the gem that awaits the club early in this year’s draft. Morgan Rielly is loosely considered the Leafs’ captain–in–waiting, but there’s no reason, at the moment, to drop that anvil on the young defenseman, still just 21.

Having traded Phaneuf’s $7 million cap hit to Ottawa — and with the number of entry–level contracts the club will shortly assume — Laich’s cap–figure will be manageable for one more year. A quick perusal of the Maple Leaf roster prior to Laich’s acquisition does not turn up (beyond Rielly) an obvious successor to Phaneuf as captain. Perhaps James van Riemsdyk could handle the role, though he’s rarely been looked upon in such a manner. Best to leave JVR to aggravating opposition goalies and lighting the lamp 25 times (if healthy). When motivated, Nazem Kadri leads by example on the ice, but hasn’t yet attained the maturity to be captain. That’s why Laich could be a perfect bridge next season between the current and future Leafs.

And, perhaps another reason why Lamoriello accepted him in the trade last weekend.

NOTE: Informed, after posting this blog, that my ol’ pal and Leafs traveling partner Ken Campbell beat me to the punch. Figures. Great minds often prevail. Here is Ken’s column: https://t.co/kj3yDa0ilP

FROM THE HOCKEY NEWS

Beginning of Expansion — Part 1

Continuing to look at my collection of The Hockey News — recently swollen by every issue dating to January 1964 — I take you back, today, to one of the most historic junctures in NHL history: the Great Expansion of 1967. In the Oct. 7 issue from that year, the six new teams (California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues) were on the cusp of playing their first games. A lengthy feature in the center–spread previewed the newcomers… and the existing (or “Original Six”) clubs. The 1967–68 NHL schedule would begin on Wednesday, Oct. 11:

FSCN9814edited-XRSCN9825edited-XRSCN9830edited-XFSCN9840edited-XFSCN9853edited-XRSCN9864edited-XRSCN9867edited-XRSCN9876edited-XRSCN9879edited-XRSCN9873edited-XRSCN9870edited-XRSCN9847edited-XEMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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