Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dion Phaneuf as the season's scapegoat

Dion Phaneuf was doomed from the start of the season when Ron Wilson declared he was the best defenseman in the league by a country mile. The statement is as false today as it was back in October. On team with a flawed defensive system and weak goaltending the Leafs defense became progressively worse as the season progressed. Phaneuf was no exception.

Phaneuf wears the "C" and is the highest paid player on the Leafs so he will naturally attract more attention than anyone else on the roster. The media and various blogs are now trying to pin the second half meltdown to weak leadership, ie, Phaneuf is a bad captain.

I don't buy into this thinking at all. There are a lot of questions to be asked about Dion Phaneuf but the Maple Leaf collapse cannot be pinned on him. I don't believe that captains play a big role on professional sport teams. Good players make for winners but putting a "C" on someone's chest isn't going to make everyone else better. I think many agree that Jerome Iginla is a model captain. Yet the Flames won't make the playoffs this year for the third consecutive year and have not made it past the first round in quite a number of years. There were seasons when both Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour were captain that the Leafs missed the playoffs.

Leadership can't come from a single individual, it has to emanate from a group of veterans. That being said Phaneuf may not be a great captain. What we don't know is what goes on in the dressing room. When you continually see player polls suggesting that Phaneuf is the most over-rated player in the league that tells me he's not a popular guy. That sentiment may also exist in the Toronto dressing room. An unpopular guy appointed captain is not likely good for team morale. I saw a recent article suggesting he and Luke Schenn did not get along. Reporters spend a lot of time hanging around with players so some of these stories have some truth to them. He likely is considered management's guy and considering how much Brian Burke has invested in this guy, it's probably true.

The bottom line is that Phaneuf makes $6.5 million (his cap hit) which ranks him 6th among defenseman. He clearly is not worth that kind of money which is probably the major reason why people are so critical of him. The Leafs are trying to build a defense around this guy and he just might not be up for it. But I doubt Burke is the one who can objectively evaluate this asset.

Phaneuf may not be the reason for the Leafs' dismal season but the real issue is whether he can contribute to their success in the future.

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