By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 7) – Once the regular season ends for the Maple Leafs tonight in Montreal, perhaps a Gallup poll could be taken to determine which member of the organization has endured the ultimate horse-whipping. Final candidates include Brian Burke, Dion Phaneuf and James Reimer – all of whom are covered in vitriolic welts.
The general manager; the captain and the No. 1 goalie form a triangle of culpability – perched abreast in the gondola of that 18-wheeler short-cutting through the Grand Canyon. A subjective analysis would crown Burke the easy winner, given his all-encompassing role in the team’s extraordinary plummet since early-February. The architect of any-such debacle – particularly one so brash, bold and belligerent – is guaranteed to absorb merciless venom in a hockey-crazed environment. For unbridled reproach and condemnation, however, Phaneuf stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd.
This, to me, is puzzling. Not the criticism or perception of underachievement; the Leafs, after all, billed Phaneuf as an amalgam of Bobby Orr, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens when he arrived via trade from Calgary – a behemoth among defensemen, natural leaders and open-ice body-crunchers; descending from the mountain-top with long hair, beard, white-robe and a cross. All that was missing was an organized pilgrimage to Downsview Park. What befuddles me, rather, is the implacable fervor with which Phaneuf has been denounced.
LEAFS CONGRATULATE CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF (BOTTOM-LEFT) AFTER HIS OVERTIME GOAL DEFEATED TAMPA BAY IN THE CLUB’S HOME FINALE ON THURSDAY NIGHT.
Burke is frequently quick to opine that Leaf players have been given the soft-shoe treatment by fans and media, both of which deride ownership, management and coaching for the hockey malaise in this city. There may be some truth to that assertion – particularly among those weaned in the Harold Ballard era – but reaction toward Phaneuf proves the worm is turning. Few Toronto players of recent vintage – and no captain in the Leafs checkered past – has been so ardently assailed.
Though Phaneuf is functioning at what knowledgeable hockey people contend is close to his optimal capacity, he is perceived, by many, as an abject failure – the poster-boy for all that ails the Blue and White. This despite ranking 12th in scoring among 295 NHL defensemen (11-32-43), placing him in the company of Dennis Wideman, Ryan Suter, Dan Boyle and Mark Streit, and ahead of such colleagues as Kevin Bieksa, Keith Yandle, Kimmo Timonen, Brent Burns, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and perennial Norris Trophy candidate Nicklas Lidstrom.
While observers contend Phaneuf is over-paid at $6.5 million a season, he’s actually providing Leafs commensurate value. Ranked 12th in scoring among blue-liners, he is 13th on the compensation scale at his position – behind Christian Ehrhoff, Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Chris Pronger, Shea Weber, Brian Campbell, Bieksa, Johnson, Brent Seabrook, James Wisniewski, Boyle and Jay Bouwmeester.
Many suggest Phaneuf is weak, defensively, but does that place him in exclusive company among fellow blue-liners? Absolutely not. In fact, it puts him among the vast majority of those that play his difficult position. Moreover, he was acquired by the Leafs to help generate offense – a 17-goal, 60-point season at Calgary in 2008-09 earning him the lucrative contract Burke inherited. Dion’s heavy shot from inside the point – frequently a weapon with the Flames – has been a disappointment here in Toronto for lack of precision. When accurately fired on goal, it has produced scoring plays and scoring opportunities.
In the subjective realm of ideal captaincy, Phaneuf hasn’t measured up to advanced billing. Teams that finish near the bottom of the NHL standings are rarely extolled for leadership. But, where does fault lay in Toronto? Is it plausible to take a young player that was not considered an emotional rock with his original team; slap a “C” on his uniform, and say “lead!?” Or, did the Maple Leafs – a club yearning for a strong, internal voice – rush to anoint their expensive acquisition?
This is clearly a case where management takes the fall; not the player. Nor does it imply that Phaneuf is a terrible captain. Surround the young man with a bit of emotional reinforcement and see what happens.
Speaking openly and eloquently to reporters is another apparent failing. Yes, Phaneuf intentionally offers wooden dialogue in media scrums and might be perceived differently were he to reveal more. But, he does tend to the captain’s role – nearly without fail – by showing up after games, regardless of the circumstance. In that regard, many of his teammates could learn a lesson or two.
Denouncing Phaneuf has become almost a hobby among fans and media here, but a feature article in the Toronto Sun on Thursday would have led to immediate ejection for “piling on” were it a football play. Written by Dave Hilson, primarily an editor at the paper, it offered no insight into the Leafs captain – stating facts and opinions that have been written and spoken about on countless occasions. Though Hilson surely worked on the article with best intentions, the blatancy and callousness of his assault read like an individual – not well-known among reporters – hoping to be acknowledged for a hard-hitting expose. He’d have better-served himself – and the Sun’s readership – by providing a trace of balance.
Below, is a link to Hilson’s story.
Some of my photos, now, from the Leafs final home game of 2011-12:
STEVEN STAMKOS (ABOVE-LEFT) CAPTURED THE SPOTLIGHT DURING THURSDAY NIGHT’S MATCH, AS HE ARRIVED IN HIS HOME TOWN GUNNING FOR 60 GOALS ON THE SEASON. HE SCORED NO. 59 IN THE THIRD PERIOD AND THEN POSED AFTER THE GAME WITH LEAFS DEFENSEMAN LUKE SCHENN IN THE CORRIDOR OUTSIDE THE VISITORS’ DRESSING ROOM.
THE JUNIOR-BERGERS – LAUREN AND SHANE (TOP-LEFT) – WERE IN ATTENDANCE (LAUREN’S FIRST GAME AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE) ON A BEAUTIFUL EARLY-APRIL EVENING.
STAMKOS AND TEAMMATES PARTAKE (ABOVE AND BELOW) IN PRE-GAME WARM-UP.
FINAL OPENING FACE-OFF AT HOME (ABOVE): REFEREE PAUL DEVORSKI GETS SET TO DROP PUCK BETWEEN MATT LOMBARDI OF THE LEAFS AND NATE THOMPSON OF THE LIGHTNING.
LEAF FANS EITHER ARRIVED LATE (ABOVE), OR NOT AT ALL.
STAMKOS WENT TO WORK EARLY AROUND THE LEAFS NET (ABOVE).
INDEED, DWAYNE ROLOSON HAS BEEN AROUND THE NHL FOR A LONG, LONG TIME. HE IS PICTURED ABOVE FROM THE ACC PRESS BOX DURING THURSDAY NIGHT’S GAME AND, BELOW, ON FRONT-COVER OF TORONTO SUN AS A MEMBER OF THE FLAMES DURING CALGARY-LEAFS GAME AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS ON MAR. 14, 1998 – IN HIS SECOND SEASON.
(ABOVE AND BELOW): MARTIN ST. LOUIS OPENED THE SCORING FOR TAMPA BAY, BUT TIM CONNOLLY BEAT A SPRAWLED ROLOSON TO TIE THE SCORE JUST 43 SECONDS LATER.
VETERAN ST. LOUIS (26 ABOVE) LOOKS ON FROM VISITORS’ BENCH.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP-LEFT: ROLOSON SHOVES A DISTRACTING CONNOLY; BEN SCRIVENS PEEKS AROUND STAMKOS; RANDY CARLYLE AND ASSISTANT GREG CRONIN CONVERSE BEHIND BENCH; JAY ROSEHILL SKATES AWAY AFTER KNOCKING ADAM HALL TO THE ICE.
AIR CANADA CENTRE TRADITION (ABOVE): FASHIONABLE TARDINESS TO BEGIN A PERIOD.
PHIL KESSEL WHEELS AWAY ON FRESH ICE (ABOVE) WITH FORMER TORONTO TEAMMATE KEITH AULIE (3) IN HOT PURSUIT.
CODY FRANSON (ABOVE); CARTER ASHTON AND MATT LOMBARDI (BELOW) PROTECT THE CREASE IN FRONT OF SCRIVENS.
JUNIOR-BERGERS WATCH GAME (ABOVE) FROM ACC SEATS.
DEFENSEMAN MIKE KOMISAREK KEEPS ADAM HALL AT A SAFE DISTANCE.
NATE THOMPSON (44) CLEANLY BEATS LOMBARDI TO FACE-OFF AT START OF THIRD PERIOD.
STAMKOS IS MOBBED (ABOVE) BY LIGHTNING TEAMMATES AFTER PUTTING VISITORS AHEAD, 2-1, WITH HIS LEAGUE-LEADING 59th GOAL AT 11:12 OF THIRD PERIOD – DULY NOTED ON ACC VIDEO-BOARD (BELOW).
WHERE DOES SCRIVENS (ABOVE) FACTOR IN LEAFS’ PLANS MOVING FORWARD?
STAMKOS AND ST. LOUIS TALK PRIOR TO FACE-OFF (ABOVE). MONTAGE BELOW: THE NHL’s TOP GOAL-GETTER WORKED HARD FOR NO. 60 BUT IT WAS JAKE GARDINER SCORING FOR LEAFS TO TIE THE GAME AT 17:05 OF THIRD PERIOD.
REGULATION PLAY ENDS (ABOVE) FOR THE FINAL TIME AT THE ACC THIS SEASON AND PHANEUF IS CONGRATULATED FOR HIS WINNING GOAL (BELOW) AT 4:01 OF OVERTIME.
LEAFS WAVE GOODBYE… PREMATURELY, ONCE AGAIN.
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