When the 2014-15 NHL regular season came to a close, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs had had enough. I mean, they’d “had enough” well before that, but the disgust had finally frothed into a vile latte that needed to be poured down the drain.
The sentiment was clear from everyone inside the organization and out: Trade everyone. Fire everyone. Like, literally, into the sun. Blow the whole thing up, start over, because as Brendan Shanahan said - for whatever reason, the mix just didn’t work.
As complete overhauls go, it was only logical that core-members Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf would be the first players marched to the wall across from the firing squad after the team’s front office got flipped-turned upside down.
Uncle Phil took the first bullet.
But as we wait for the Leafs’ captain to receive his similar fate, it’s starting to look more like he may be granted a stay, and possibly one that becomes a full-on pardon.
Let’s start with the off-ice reasons before taking it to the blue line.
First, the obvious: Mike Babcock is a serious, no-nonsense coach who believes in hard work. You can say a lot of things about Phaneuf, but there’s no denying he’s all three of those things too. It’s safe to say the respect is mutual - remember how Detroit really wanted Phaneuf, then Babcock left, then those talks died down? Not sayin’, just sayin’.
An NHL captain has an interesting, somewhat political job in an NHL locker room. He serves as a liaison to the coach, who’s not always an easy man to access, let alone approach. He can take the general temperature of the room - is the team tired and in need of a day off, are guys bitching about the power play, and so on - and relay it to the coach, who isn’t privy to the quiet locker room conversations that take place every day before and after practices and games.
If the coach/captain relationship is particularly strong, the captain almost becomes another arm of the coach in the room, doubling down on the team message, and serving as another pair of eyes and ears. Is Player X skipping workouts? Is Player Y putting in more time with the skating coach? Coach is gonna know.
In Detroit, Babcock had players and leaders he knew and respected. He had relationships. He’s coming into Toronto cold.
Phaneuf is, as a media member described to me, ever the good soldier. He’s coming into next season on the same page as Babcock, which is an awfully nice start for the new coach. He can trust that his message will be enforced, if not amplified.
Beyond the off-ice duties, there’s reason enough to justify giving Phaneuf a chance to bounce back on the ice.
For one, It’s almost impossible to have on-ice success on a bad team. I personally went through a college season that saw me finish two points off the team lead … with 13. We were such a general nightmare that we played the whole damn game in our own end, which meant we all looked awful, even the players who weren’t (a couple guys eventually played in the NHL).
Phaneuf is coming off a couple seasons where he’s played the most minutes against the best players on a garbage team. He’s been asked to kill penalties, man the power play, hit guys, stand up for teammates, face the media … all in an utterly futile effort amid lost seasons while getting buried on a nightly basis, on and off the ice.
Aside from the eye-test, it’s almost impossible to tell what the guy is - or could be - with better structure and better teammates, and this isn’t a team that can afford to misjudge what might be a very useful defenseman for more than a couple years.
Heading into his 30-year-old season - in a league where 31-year-old defensemen Mark Giordano and Duncan Keith are among the NHL’s best, and 34-year-olds are getting four years in free agency - Phaneuf is set to earn $7 million per season for the next six years. There’s no denying that’s a lot of money for not-quite-prime years. Too much, in fact. But if you believe Phaneuf, a guy who takes excellent care of himself, can at least come close to earning it by being the player we saw just a few seasons ago, you might want to give the guy who just signed for $50 million the chance to coach him and weigh in with his thoughts before shipping him out.
Ideally, as he gets older and starts to earn a smaller percentage of the cap, he’d play in a 2-3 role, something like Brent Seabrook, who will likely start earning Phaneuf money this summer. Seabrook’s advantage, of course, is that he has Keith to lean on, while Phaneuf has generally been playing with a wet bag of workout laundry.
The Leafs believe - or at least hope - that over the course of Phaneuf’s contract they find a true number one (if they don’t already have one in Morgan Rielly) to alleviate the weight under which he’s played, allowing him fewer, easier minutes which could yet see the big man thrive. It would be a treat to allow Phaneuf the chance to play more aggressively, without the knowledge that every error comes with no bailout plan in sight, and likely a minus.
The Leafs, and most importantly, the Leafs coach, likely see a player that’s somehow continued to play adequately despite existing in an environment so toxic a cockroach would call it quits, and they want to see for themselves what some improvements could do for his game.
Phaneuf won’t ever be up for a Norris Trophy, but it’s not hard to imagine a fresh start, the respect of his coach, and improved structure allowing him to play an important role on a good team. If the Leafs think they can get to that “good team” status quicker with him than without - and that he could contribute once they get there - pulling the trigger on another dollar-for-three-quarters core-member trade is an outcome worth avoiding.
Some pretty smart hockey men put Phaneuf square in their sights, evaluated his worth, and for now, seem to have decided not to pull the trigger.
Sometimes people are simply beyond repair, but it looks like Phaneuf is going to get a real chance to rehabilitate both his game and his image in Toronto.