What’s the Captain’s role in all of this?

What’s the Captain’s role in all of this?

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Photo Credit: sportsnet.ca

It was as predictable as it was painful to read. Smelling blood in the water as the fan base angrily seeks answers for what’s been an inexplicable and catastrophic collapse, The Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk turned from calling player’s moms to dialing up anonymous ex Maple Leafs to perform a hatchet job on Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf.

Feschuk takes so many liberties with his latest work, walking an ethical tight rope as a professional journalist, it’s not worth linking to, much less poring over in line-by-line detail. At one point he seems to base a hint of a rift between Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn around Phaneuf and Luke’s brother Brayden Schenn scrumming each other in front of the net the other night. He works in a shot at Burke, with whom he’s had a rocky relationship after calling up Reimer’s mom, when he wonders why he still has high regard in the hockey community even though his team played awful the last 20 games. He says Phaneuf never looks inward for blame, even though his favourite line following a loss is “we need to be better.”

Feschuk only now mentions that Phaneuf did not attend certain events during the weekend of the Sundin banner raising ceremony, and that this allegedly upset some alumni. The timing of the piece and these revelations speak to Feschuk’s moral fibre, bravely revealing them now when the team is in a lottery position, as opposed to when the snub actually happened; of course, the Leafs were still in playoff contention then. But with the Leafs back in familiar territory and the Leaf hate at full roar, the opportunistic Feschuk knew the time was now right to launch his agenda.

Enough of that, let’s try to take a more balanced look at the Leaf captaincy in the fallout of the last two months. To be clear, Dion has had his moments where his effort level has been questionable. I’ve seen lazy play and a lack of effort out of him at points; sometimes leading directly to goals. I’ve seen it out of pretty much the whole team, too. They’ve quit on the season; you don’t lose this many games and suffer so many blow outs in such a short span of hockey schedule without that being obvious. But it lacks perspective to suggest Phaneuf is the only decent captain to be guilty of playing a role in a terrible stretch of hockey.

The most undue criticism Phaneuf has faced during this catastrophic collapse has been an unwillingness to drop the mitts at points, the most recent example being the chest bumping with Scott Hartnell that saw both skate to their respective benches. Firstly, we have no idea who declined who’s invitation there, unless we’re the ref nearby. Both characters in question like to run their mouths, Hartnell in particular, and that might have been all that transpired. Hartnell didn’t seem particularly interested in fighting and risking injury in a 7-1 win up to that point, either. Secondly, Dion has received a message from the coaching staff not to put himself in the box for five minutes at a time unless he has to – see Dave Farrish running down the bench telling him to walk away the other week. In a blowout game, would the team have missed him if he went? Probably not. But Phaneuf cannot be answering for every hard hit by throwing down the gloves after every inquiry.

Criticisms for Phaneuf have their place – a collapse on this scale naturally leads to questions surrounding the leadership – but too many of these criticisms are based in out-of-control expectation. Phaneuf plays 25 minutes a night, against the opposition’s best, and on both sides of special teams; he’s asked to score and to stop some of the league’s best from scoring, and he’s expected to bring his usual physical game in the process. He also – and this should be considered a bonus – fights when he has to. That’s a nice thing to have when you take into consideration the other important roles Phaneuf serves. It should not be an expectation on a nightly basis. Phaneuf pisses off the opposition, and that’s a good thing, but it also means he’ll have inordinate opportunity to drop the gloves. He has to pick his spots, and that’s clearly been the message he’s been receiving from the coaching staff.

Put it this way – does anybody look at an embarrassed Brian Burke, who seemed on the verge of combusting when the TSN cameras fixed on him Thursday night, and think the Leafs GM isn’t willing to do whatever it takes to get this right? Burke and Nonis are past the point of making excuses and ignoring the real issues. If the pair felt the problem with this team was Dion being Captain, Nonis wouldn’t be out defending Phaneuf on various radio segments the other day. There’s no sense in trying to save face with rhetoric at this point. Burke or Nonis’ words mean little anymore. Going forward, only the results speak for them now and only the playoffs can assure they still have their jobs after next season.

In reality, this isn’t the NBA, and good leadership in the NHL is about having a good leadership group. Did anybody think Crosby was just such an impeccable leader, ready at the age of 19 to show the likes of Mark Recchi how to be a professional, or that he was just the best and most marketable player on the Penguin roster? Certainly it was the latter. The Penguins did, however, have Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Gary Roberts, John LeClair and Brooks Orpik in the dressing room that year comprising a solid leadership group.

Too many of the the Leafs‘ veterans, either through poor play or unfortunate circumstance, ended up playing marginal roles this season. Mike Komisarek and Colby Armstrong spent as much time in the press box or injured as they did on the ice, and got little ice when they were in the lineup. John Michael Liles’ great start to the season was derailed by a concussion. Tim Connolly played a far worse than expected and in a reduced role, not that he was signed for his leadership qualities anyways. That Armstrong is injury prone and Komisarek is press box prone wasn’t news to anyone though, and Leafs brass probably underestimated a need here. Nonis pretty much acknowledged as much in his round of interviews on Thursday.

It is clear this group has no clue how to get itself out of the tailspin its mired in. They’re far past fearing the worst, they’re expecting it at this point, accepting their fate as sealed and  seemingly looking to the end of the season as their only saviour. The biggest worry entering the season as one of the youngest teams in the league is the fear of streakiness and emotional extremes, and right now this group is at an extreme low. We romanticize the notion of a captain picking his struggling team up by the bootstraps and carrying them to success, and we forget that Doug Gilmour was the Captain of a Leaf team that won just three of 22 games in February and March of 1996, leading to Pat Burns’ dismissal as head coach. It takes more than one man to lead a hockey team, and I expect the Burke and Nonis will add a new but experienced hand to the blueline to help Phaneuf out next season.

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Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]