Charlie Conacher. Ted Kennedy. George Armstrong. Darryl Sitttler. Wendel Clarke. Mats Sundin. Dion Phaneuf.
This is a very brief timeline of the different captains in Toronto Maple Leafs history.
A captain of a hockey team is someone that can traditionally put the team on his back and guide them through the best and worst of times. A captain can answer the call when the team needs him to step up. On and off the ice he is a leader—the voice the rest of the team needs for inspiration.
For the past two seasons, Phaneuf has been appointed as that man. For the last two seasons the Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs. For the last two seasons the Maple Leafs have not been able to produce at the most important times of the season, and they have found themselves near the bottom of the Eastern conference.
Should all the blame be put on the captain? Certainly not, but some of it should. After blaming the general manager and the coach, the next person to take the most heat is usually the captain.
Phaneuf first appeared with the C on his chest at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season after then head coach Ron Wilson found him to be the best choice. Phaneuf finished with eight goals and 22 points in just 66 games played as he suffered a leg injury in early November. He wouldn’t return until the beginning of December, and the Leafs were already struggling at that point. His return did help them with a late season push, but it wasn’t enough.
This year, Phaneuf got off to a hot start—good enough to send him to his third NHL All-Star game finishing second among all defensemen by fan voting. It seemed as if Phaneuf's star was finally back on the rise. The Leafs were in the thick of the playoff hunt and Phaneuf was doing his job.
But as we all know, they ultimately failed and Phaneuf had a miserable end to the season, recording just six points in the last month. While he put up 44 points overall, most of them came in the first couple months of 2011.
Phaneuf as a captain doesn’t have to be the best player on the ice every night. But he is expected to mentor the younger players and show the rest of the team what if takes to make it to the postseason.
This is where he has failed.
Phaneuf appeared in the postseason every year he played with the Calgary Flames, but never made it past the first round. He knows how to get into the playoffs, yet that hasn’t transpired to helping the Maple Leafs.
With a new head coach now behind the Leafs bench, there may be a changing of the guard. Head coach Randy Carlyle has a different system and style of play he wants to implement in this team. Phaneuf may not fit his style of play, and therefore may not be the one Carlyle wants giving direction to the players.
When you look at the rest of the roster, only a few players have more playoff experience than Phaneuf, but that does not mean he is best suited for the captaincy.
I think Carlyle should take a serious look at how the players perform in this year's training camp and make a decision based on that. He will have to be careful not to hurt Phaneuf's overall morale and have his performance suffer even more. But he will also have to show the team that things are now going to work his way.
It didn’t work Ron Wilson’s way, and the Ron Wilson way had Phaneuf as a captain.
I don’t think Phaneuf should be removed from the team. I think he is an important asset and when playing to his potential, he is a dominant shutdown defenseman. He showed this through the first half of 2011.
Phaneuf is no rookie, either.
He knows what his strengths and weakness are. He has a big body that he needs to throw around more. He has a hard shot that needs to be heard more often from the blue line. He has the ability to help youngsters when given the time, just like he helped out Luke Schenn last year. He needs to be the Phaneuf that had all the potential in the world when playing in Calgary.
It seems like when his performance suffers, so did the other defensemen on the team. If he can continuously lead by example, he will draw praise from teammates and fans alike. It will be at this point that he can claim he is the rightful captain of this team.
Until that point, though, the title of Leafs captain really should be up in the air. With the hiring of Randy Carlyle, the Leafs are trying to turn the page on what has been a miserable post-lockout period. The right captain could be Phaneuf, but he will have a lot to prove this coming season.
The right captain may be someone else in the Maple Leafs locker room right now. He may be playing on a different team currently in the postseason. He may be on the golf course counting down the days until free agent frenzy begins.
Wherever he is the, Leafs need him, and they need him quick.
Follow Matthew on twitter @MatthewSookram
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