Meats Don't Clash
Join Date: Jan 2008
Location: Ontario, Canada
Re: 2011-2012 NHL Thread
Some look back on it as the weekend the Maple Leafs’ season unravelled. It was a Saturday night in early February when the once-proud franchise honoured former captain Mats Sundin with a pre-game ceremony.
But not long after Sundin’s No. 13 was raised to the Air Canada Centre’s rafters, the members of the current roster plumbed the depths of athletic disinterest in a 5-0 loss to the woeful Montreal Canadiens. The lackadaisical Leafs, dominated on that night by the last-place team in the Eastern Conference, haven’t won a home game since.
Others remember it as a moment when Dion Phaneuf’s Toronto captaincy was once again confirmed as a sputtering work in progress. On a weekend on which Sundin, Phaneuf’s predecessor as chief Leaf, was feted with separate receptions on Friday and Saturday night, at least three former players who attended the events say Phaneuf never showed up to pay his respects to Sundin.
“Dion’s absence was noted,” said one former player.
Another ex-NHLer, who pointed out that even members of the Canadiens made time to honour Sundin, guffawed at Phaneuf’s oversight.
“It’s a no-brainer: If you’re the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you go. Period,” said an ex-Leaf. “That’s part of learning what it’s like to be a captain. (Phaneuf) has a lot to learn.”
The former players asked not to be named because Phaneuf is seen as a golden boy by Brian Burke, the Leafs president and general manager, who despite his team’s epic free-fall through the standings remains an influential figure in NHL circles. Criticizing the captain is a no-go around Burke. And sure enough, as another Leafs season ends in a wreck, one of Burke’s assistants, Dave Nonis, has been making the media rounds this week defending Phaneuf’s acumen as a leader of men.
Phaneuf, in other words, has been granted a mulligan by management for his role in the epic collapse of a once-promising campaign that will end with the Leafs missing the playoffs for the seventh straight season. But close observers of the team aren’t so sure the 26-year-old defenceman is deserving of the grace.
As an on-ice performer, Phaneuf has appeared to regress as his team’s results have become grislier; his minus-2 scoreline in Thursday’s embarrassing 7-1 loss was as prideless a performance as he has registered since arriving in Toronto.
As a leader, Phaneuf has, from the outside, appeared to be an ineffectual force, as powerless to stop a season’s death spiral as every other dismayed citizen of Leafs Nation. While NHLers are usually quick to praise teammates, the Leafs have danced around the subject of Phaneuf’s leadership at the best of times this season.
Perhaps it hasn’t helped that Phaneuf, who wasn’t made available to the media after Thursday’s loss or Friday’s practice, has, when he has spoken in public, chosen to spread the blame around the room.
While Mike Komisarek, one of the team’s assistant captains, was grimly falling on his sword on Friday — “I need to be better,” Komisarek said more than once in an interview — Phaneuf has come off as incapable of self-criticism.
Still, it would be wrong to pretend that Phaneuf, who will turn 27 on April 10, is alone at fault for the state of Toronto’s rudderless hockey operation.
While wise NHL voices point out that young captains aren’t necessarily an NHL no-no, even Nonis acknowledged this week that the Leafs have failed to surround Phaneuf with the necessary mentor or two to guide him through the tricky terrain of teammate relations. In other words, there’s a reason why Sidney Crosby, the youngest captain in NHL history, bunked with Mario Lemieux. Certainly it didn’t hurt Chris Pronger, named a captain in his early 20s in St. Louis, that a future Hall-of-Famer, Al MacInnis, also occupied the room. Phaneuf, gifted the sacred letter two years ago this month after all of 26 games as a Leaf, has enjoyed the luxury of no such elder influence.
“The evolution of a captain — it’s a lot harder than people think,” said Jamie McLennan, the TSN analyst who played with Phaneuf in Calgary. “It takes time to come to the forefront. And you need a good supporting cast around you. ... I’m not in the dressing room in Toronto, but I don’t think he has a really good supporting cast.”
To be sure, if one thing has become obvious in Leafland in the past six weeks or so, it’s that an influx of veteran character is required. It hasn’t helped that Toronto assistant captains like Komisarek and Colby Armstrong have spent long stretches watching from the press box. It hasn’t helped that Phaneuf’s substantial ego was needlessly fed by former head coach Ron Wilson, who earlier this season raised hackles around the league by calling Phaneuf the NHL’s “best defenceman ... by a country mile” even though Phaneuf, who has gotten steadily worse ever since, is clearly not in that conversation.
On Friday, Randy Carlyle was asked what Phaneuf can learn from this disastrous season. Carlyle, who has been on the bench for just four victories in his 14 games since he replaced Wilson, offered up a short treatise on the perils of selfishness.
“You’re not going to give yourself a chance if you go out and play a team game as an individual,” Carlyle said.
The new coach has gone out of his way to point out that leadership in Leafland needs to be a group effort.
“In some situations, the C that’s on the sweater gets pretty heavy,” Carlyle said Friday. “Those are times when you have to have four or five guys ... be a part of that leadership core and make a statement.”
Whether Phaneuf, best known for his Day One command of the dressing-room stereo, can be a voice for team-wide harmony remains an open question. Some close to the team believe, citing Phaneuf’s absence from Sundin’s shindigs, that he is tone deaf to what’s expected of the playing face of a heritage club, not to mention unwilling to ask for advice. Many found it curious in this week’s blowout loss that Phaneuf passed on chances to fight the likes of long-time nemesis Scott Hartnell and instead turned his late-game wrath on Flyers rookie Brayden Schenn. Schenn’s brother, Luke, of course, is Toronto’s longest serving defenceman. The tete-a-tete fuelled long-held speculation that the tension that exists between Phaneuf and Toronto’s Schenn is a cancerous dressing-room presence. It also had more than one former Leaf questioning the captain’s wherewithal.
“There comes a time when you’ve got to stand up,” said the alumnus.
On Thursday night, like so many nights this season, that time passed with Phaneuf and the men he is supposed to lead standing dumbfounded and still and beaten.