So what happened? Who’s to blame for the freefall? There are no easy answers. But one thing is clear: There simply wasn’t any leadership in the dressing room.
A team doesn’t go into such a psychological funk, doesn’t turtle the way the Leafs did, if there was. It certainly wasn’t being provided by Phaneuf, the man handpicked by Burke and Wilson to lead the Leafs to the Promised Land. But it turns out he didn’t have the tools to get them there.
It turns out when push came to shove Phaneuf was ill-equipped to motivate his teammates to a higher level of play, to carry them on his shoulders. It turns out Phaneuf was no Sittler, Clark, Gilmour or Sundin — even though Burke would have liked us to believe he was.
“Today is a very important day for the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Burke had said when he introduced the Edmonton native as the team’s new captain back in June of 2010. “The Leafs have had many great players fulfil this role in the long history of the franchise, and we wouldn’t be taking this direction if we didn’t think it was absolutely the right step. We liked the impact Dion made with players, coaches and fans alike since his arrival and we consider him a building block toward future team success.”
Those words seem empty now. Now there is talk that the decision to name Phaneuf captain must be re-thought, that he should have been allowed to develop his own game before having the extra duties of the captaincy foisted upon him.
This is not to blame Phaneuf entirely for the Leafs’ implosion — it was a group effort after all. But as captain of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports, he must shoulder a larger portion of the burden. Part of being a captain is to lead by example, to be better when everyone else is not. In this regard, Phaneuf failed. He was average when the Leafs needed him to be above-average.
And when the Leafs took to the Air Canada Centre ice for an optional morning skate on the day Carolina eliminated them from the playoffs, Phaneuf was nowhere to be seen. Not on the ice, not addressing the media. It would have made for good optics at the very least.
Then there were the giveaways, the bad decisions at both ends of the ice, opposing forwards turning him this way and that. On many nights, the mistakes were glaring. And during the slide into oblivion, where was the big hit, the big goal, the big play? They weren’t there.
Of course, it must be asked, why after only 26 games in a Leafs uniform had he even been named captain? To answer that, you must turn to Burke, a man desperate to give a face to a faceless team.
Burke had said upon his arrival in Toronto that he would rid the Leafs of Blue-and-White Disease, that things would have to be earned, not expected, under his rule. Then he handed the reins over to Phaneuf after just a quarter of a season.
In Burke’s mind, perhaps, Phaneuf was to be another Chris Pronger, the intimidating defenceman the then-Anaheim GM acquired from Edmonton to help his Ducks make their eventual Cup run in 2006-07.
But Phanuef is not Pronger. He is not as intimidating, nor is he as complete. Can you ever imagine Phaneuf compiling a plus-52, a number Pronger achieved with St. Louis in 1999-2000? And Phaneuf doesn’t command the same respect around the league.
Phaneuf was voted the most overrated player in the NHL in a Sports Illustrated poll of 161 NHLers and has been openly mocked by Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Hartnell and on-air analyst Ray Ferraro.
Do you think that would ever have happened to Pronger?
It was always Burke’s intention to foist the “C” upon Phaneuf even though he was barely 25 and had recently been traded by the Calgary Flames, a team that certainly didn’t see the defenceman as a worthy successor to Jarome Iginla, This despite the Flames drafting him ninth overall in 2003 and his impressive numbers since his rookie season.
Remember when Wilson called Phaneuf “the best defenceman in the league”? That was back on Oct. 29 after the Leafs had beaten Pittsburgh 4-3 to improve to 7-2-1. That statement seems laughable now. Phaneuf hasn’t even been the best defenceman on the Leafs.
Of course, the Leafs captain hasn’t been all bad. He leads the team in average ice time and is second in hits and blocked shots and third in assists and power-play goals. But there is much work to be done on his game. Had he not been paired with Carl Gunnarsson for a good portion of the season, his defensive deficiencies would have been even more glaring.
Who then, if not Phaneuf, should have been named captain? That is exactly the point. In the time since Burke took over the team in November 2008, until Phaneuf was named the 18th captain in Maple Leafs history, the Leafs GM had not acquired a single player worthy of wearing the “C.” He had assembled a team without a definitive leader. And for that, he must take the blame.
He was desperate to fill the void when Mats Sundin departed at the end of the 2007-08 season. Phaneuf, a former Norris Trophy runner-up, seemed like the perfect fit, a gruff and grumbly persona cut from the same cloth as his boss. But his bark is worse than his bite — and that shows on the ice all too often.
Perhaps no one should have been named captain until someone stepped up and earned the job. Perhaps the Leafs should have used a rotating captaincy until a true leader emerged.
Would another year without a full-time captain really have mattered?
By most accounts, Phaneuf is liked enough by his teammates and is vocal in the dressing room, but he seems ill-suited to the job. Couple the glaring deficiencies in his game with the rather begrudging way he deals with the media and you have a less-than-inspired combination. Let’s face it, no matter how painful it is to step up to the mic every day and answer the same questions, it’s part of the job. He is the face of the franchise and the public’s vision of the Leafs is very much affected by how Phaneuf appears to the media. And all too often that is brusque and dismissive.
Burke was supposed to be our Renaissance man, delivering Leafs Nation from the Dark Ages. Instead, all he has delivered is a rudderless, sinking ship.
Dion Phaneuf is the 18th captain in Maple Leafs history, dating from 1927 to present. Here’s a look at the men who have worn the “C” for Toronto and the years that they served.
Player Years Served
Dion Phaneuf 2010 to present
No captain 2008-2010
Mats Sundin 1997-2008
Doug Gilmour 1994-1997
Wendel Clark 1991-1994
Rob Ramage 1989-1991
No captain 1986-1989
Rick Vaive 1982-1986
Darryl Sittler 1980-1982
No Captain 1979-1980
Darryl Sittler 1975-1979
Dave Keon 1969-1975
George Armstrong 1957-1969
Ted Kennedy 1957
Jimmy Thomson 1956-1957
Sid Smith 1955-1956
Ted Kennedy 1948-1955
Syl Apps 1945-1948
Bob Davidson 1943-1945
Syl Apps 1940-1943
Red Horner 1938-1940
Charlie Conacher 1937-1938
Hap Day 1927-1937
Bert Corbeau 1927