TORONTO - It may sound easy to say now that the “C” is on the sweater and the Maple Leafs finally have an 18th captain to lead them out of their darkest days.
But when general manager Brian Burke was shipping the last of the old guard to Calgary last March, a group that was instrumental in varying degrees to the team’s longest drought outside of the playoffs, it was in the plan.
“Part of what we were trading for, part of this deal was we thought he was captain material,” Burke said after Dion Phaneuf became the anointed one at an elaborate ceremony Monday that had everything but the incense.
“I thought he was captain material when I watched him in his draft year.”
The beauty of announcing it before the draft and July 1 free agency is that the subject can be debated by the hockey mad here for the 100 days or so until training camp gets serious.
The pros and cons for the move will be beaten to death by then at which point Burke and coach Ron Wilson can focus on the issue that really matters: Avoiding a sixth consecutive spring out of the post season.
And here’s where the Phaneuf captaincy may have its most significant upside. As recently as two seasons ago, the 25-year-old was touted as one of the top young defencemen in the game. Somewhere along the way that process was stalled, so what if the “C” on the sweater brings out the “A” in his game?
If there was an immature side to his play and his personality, could the captaincy help him grow up in both areas?
“We’re talking about a player who (just turned 25) and is improving anyway,” Burke said. “In our league, defencemen don’t hit their full stride until they are 27, 28 years old.
“I think Dion is still on the way up as a player. I think this added responsibility will help him, not hurt him. I think it will accelerate that ramp.”
You don’t need to be Pierre McGuire to figure out that the Leafs need a leader on the ice as much as they do in the dressing room — and ultimately it will be the former where Phaneuf’s grades are earned.
Taking the recently completed Stanley Cup final as a model, the Leafs could use the skill of Hawks’ Duncan Keith and the feistiness and leadership of the Flyers’ Chris Pronger, minus the stick work.
When it came to filling the captain’s role last held by Mats Sundin after the 2007-08 season, Burke says he ceded the decision to Wilson, who didn’t need much convincing either.
“Dion started changing the culture within seconds of getting in the dressing room,” Burke said.
“This is a guy who saw a leadership vacuum and leaped in and filled it.”
The assertion of that command began early, when he seized control of the dressing room stereo on his first day and cranked up the decibel level.
Then there was the one-game cameo of last year’s top draft pick, Nazem Kadri. Just in case the kid was too full of himself, Phaneuf suggested that he come to training camp next fall with a body looking more like a man and less like a boy.
“I think he’ll have to tone it down in the room a little bit,” Wilson said .
“You know, a woodpecker gets annoying after a while. We hear him back in the coaches offices for the whole 17 minutes between periods — over an 82 game schedule, that can wear some people out.”
It can do the opposite as well. And ultimately that’s when we will see if Monday’s show was more about substance or ceremony.