In part one of his 12 burning questions series, Derek Harmsworth takes a look at whether the Maple Leafs new captain can return to form.
January 31st will forever be a day that will have historical significance for the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise, and all its fans. Â How large of a significance it will have in the grand scheme of things has yet to be determined, but in many ways, it could be argued that it was the day the franchise turned the corner.
Gone were several incumbents, players who had suited up for the blue and white for years. Â Players that fans had come to know, players who had come to know the city and feel comfortable in its surroundings. Â Perhaps, too comfortable.
In what was eerily reminiscent of the January 2nd, 1992 trade that previously reshaped a once dormant franchise into something exciting for its long suffering fans. Â Although the years following that trade did not produce the seemingly elusive Stanley Cup, that 1992 trade that brought the Maple Leafs Doug Gilmour-coincidentally a trade that was made with Calgary-was one that shifted the organization into a positive direction.
Phaneuf rose to meteoric fame during the World Junior Hockey Championship, where, among other intangibles, he showed a penchant for delivering crushing body checks, and a take no prisoner style on the ice. Â When Calgary drafted him 9th overall in 2003, it seemed like a perfect fit for Phaneuf, who would continue his hockey tutelage under a Sutter, albeit this one with a different first name.
And for the first couple years, it was.
Everything that made Phaneuf an instant star on the junior hockey circuit translated over to the NHL game nicely. Â Phaneuf was a fierce competitor, who screamed intimidation, laying out opponents with jaw jarring hits, dropping the mitts when necessary, and unleashing a cannon of a slap shot that helped propel the Flames powerplay.
In his first three season in the National Hockey League, Phaneuf had amassed point totals of 49, 50, and 60 respectively. Â Of those points were goal totals of 20 in his rookie year, and back-to-back years of 17 goals.
And while looking back at the point totals standing alone, it would appear as though Phaneuf was a solid contributor to the Flames offense in his four and a half seasons with the Flames. Â But there is, according to some, alarming stats. Â And it wasn’t just the stats where the alarm bells rang.
Phaneuf’s point totals are solid for a hard hitting defenseman, but they also represent a decline in production for the most part. Â Of his NHL seasons, his point totals read 49, 50, 60, 47, and 32 last season, which was of course split between the Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
His goal totals dipped dramatically, as did his power play output and shot totals. Â Off the ice, there were rumours of an uneasy relationship between Phaneuf and general manager, Daryl Sutter.
When the Maple Leafs made the trade for Phaneuf, there were those, anti Leafs pundits most certainly among them, lining up to talk about the $6.5 million gamble Brian Burke had taken. Â Was he in fact signing a star who simply needed a change of scenery? Or was there a chance that Phaneuf was simply regressing, and at this point nothing more than a physical, yet overpaid, defenseman?
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the notion that Phaneuf’s best days are behind them appears to be complete rubbish as far as they are concerned. Â In the days following the trade most involved with the Maple Leafs organization raved about Phaneuf’s work ethic, his personality, and his leadership.
Also soothing to the Leafs, and their fans as well, was the fact that in 26 appearances with the Leafs this season Phaneuf registered 2 goals and 8 assists, good for 10 points, certainly not setting the world on fire, but perhaps discovering the edges that made his offensive game click. Â Beyond that, many who had watched him with the Flames in the first half of the year remarked how he simply looked more involved in the game.
On June 14th, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that after two years without a team captain, that Phaneuf would be handed the reigns. Â A vote of confidence from management that should go a long way towards bringing Phaneuf back to the top of his game.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs it was a gamble worth making. Â A player, only five years in the National Hockey League, who many feel can still be a franchise defenseman. Â Count the Maple Leafs organization among those believers.
For the Leafs, the road to respectability is underway, and they may well have taken the express route with the trade for Phaneuf, in which they gained their next captain by giving up more or less spare parts.
Both the Maple Leafs organization, and Phaneuf himself are banking on the big, bruising defender regaining his form that made him so feared and revered just a couple of years ago.
It is as vital to the renaissance as the Doug Gilmour trade was all those years ago. Â Leafs fans can only hope the results are similar.