Phaneuf Absence Good Test For Leafs

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Jan. 26) — To illustrate how goofy it has once again become with hockey in this town, the news of Dion Phaneuf’s “upper–body” injury (or fractured hand) brought to mind that scene late in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy splashes the wicked witch with a pail of water. As the witch melts into the floor, and Toto paws through her remnants, one of her purported guards drops to a knee and exclaims, “Hail to Dorothy, the wicked witch is dead.” All parties begin to celebrate.

Dion Phaneuf isn’t dead. Nor, to my knowledge, has he ever set fire to a living scarecrow. But, somehow, Phaneuf has attained — among followers of the Maple Leafs — the genre of contempt reserved for Margaret Hamilton’s character in the 1939 MGM classic. Open a window on this frigid Monday and you’re bound to hear someone shout, “Hail to Michalek, the pylon is gone” — a brief punch–up with left–winger Milan Michalek of Ottawa last Wednesday apparently sidelining Phaneuf for at least a fortnight, as intimated by coach Peter Horachek. The Leafs captain is officially listed as “week–to–week.” Cripes, aren’t we all?

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DION PHANEUF IS LED TO THE PENALTY BOX BY LINESMAN DON HENDERSON AFTER A SCRAP WITH MILAN MICHALEK IN OTTAWA LAST WEDNESDAY. ANDRE RINGUETTE GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

But, now comes the interesting part.

For only the second time in his blighted tenure with the Maple Leafs, Phaneuf will miss a chunk of action. On Nov. 2, 2010, also against Ottawa but at the Air Canada Centre, Phaneuf got tangled up in the corner with Peter Regin of the Senators and fell awkwardly to the ice. Regin’s skate accidentally tore into the side of Phaneuf’s left knee. The Toronto defenseman underwent immediate surgery to clean the wound and repair a nick to his medial collateral ligament. He would sit idly for 16 games (Nov. 3 to Dec. 8), during which the Blue and White fell into its annual season–killing funk with a 3–10–3 record that removed the club from legitimate playoff contention. Phaneuf had dressed for the first three games of the slump. The Maple Leafs were 5–7–3 without him.

Just more than four years (and three coaches) later, Phaneuf has again fallen during the annual tailspin. Only this time, the deed is done — a 3–14–0 tumble since Dec. 18 plunging the Leafs ten points beneath the Stanley Cup terminator in the Eastern Conference and, effectively, out of the playoff race. To dub the remaining 34 games of the schedule “exhibitions” or “meaningless” may be a stretch, but the Leafs are in a hole from which they will not emerge. As such, the club has a largely unburdened chance to see how it can fare without its captain and big–minutes leader on the blue line. Opportunity awaits, in particular, for Cody Franson and Morgan Rielly, whose responsibilities will expand in Phaneuf’s absence. Given the Maple Leafs’ plight and corresponding time to experiment with the roster, this is hardly devastating news.

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NOV. 2, 2010: PHANEUF SUFFERS A KNEE LACERATION. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Ultimately, Brendan Shanahan will attempt to reconstruct the hockey club by somehow moving out its chief current assets. I use the word “somehow” rather obviously; such onerous contracts belonging to Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, David Clarkson, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas will not facilitate an easy transition. But, hockey observers in this city have literally not had an opportunity to watch the Maple Leafs without either of the club cornerstones: Phaneuf and Kessel. The captain has missed only two games (both last season) since his knee laceration in Nov. 2010; Kessel has appeared in every game (412 consecutively) since debuting with the Leafs on Oct. 31, 2009 — coming off a shoulder injury 1½ months after being acquired from Boston.

So, there will be a foreign element to the hockey club when it resumes play on Wednesday night in snowy Newark. It is imperative for Shanahan and Co. to watch closely in Phaneuf’s absence; to determine, as best they can, which blue–liners are capable of elevating obligation and performance. Franson has rebounded from a sub–par season and is showing much of his poise and command from the 48–game lockout schedule two years ago. Rielly is learning his craft under less–than ideal circumstances, yet he seems prepared for most assignments. The player to watch with particular focus could be Jake Gardiner, who shone amid added responsibility in the May 2013 playoff series with Boston; then again while the rest of his teammates withered down the stretch last season. Perhaps Gardiner’s oft–dormant ability will flourish.

This will have to be viewed, by Shanahan, with the begrudging knowledge that his team has shot its playoff bolt. As such, he may not be able to accurately gauge how young players, in particular, might weather the encumbrance of a late–season push. The absence of Phaneuf will, however, provide the club at least a different look.

One that may be of immense value down the line.

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