Similar to the hole in the middle of the first line, the absence of legitimate number one goalie and the instability of the team’s defence corps, leadership is an issue that has haunted the Toronto Maple Leafs for years.
Here’s some good news and some bad news for Leaf fans. Good: the Leafs’ leadership situation has improved over last season. Bad: it’s still not good enough to succeed in the post-season.
When Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Maple Leafs by the Calgary Flames back in January of 2010, no one expected him to become the Leafs’ next captain. In fact, it was still strongly believed at the time that Luke Schenn was on his way to acquiring that role, something that ultimately never came to fruition.
Phaneuf was eventually named captain, which was just one step he took on his way to becoming the league’s best defenceman “by a country mile.”
“Personally I think by a country mile he’s the best defenseman in the league. It’s not even close right now. I think he’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s comfortable being the captain, he’s healthy and I think without taking away from his play, the way Carl Gunnarsson’s played has made Dion’s job a lot easier. It’s just freed up Dion to play as best as I’ve ever seen him.” – Ron Wilson, October 29, 2012
But does Phaneuf’s on-ice talent and the fact that he dons a ‘C’ on the front of his uniform make him a great leader? Not necessarily.
While this column is being written with little knowledge of what actually goes on inside the Maple Leafs’ dressing room, we can speculate who the team’s best leaders are simply by their actions through the media, community involvement, and their willingness to stick up for one another.
Keep in mind that we’re not just talking one or two of those qualities, but all three and perhaps more that are unmentioned. They all set a good example for their teammates, fans and even league and team executives.
First we’ll start with the media, where Dion really seems to struggle.
In no way is this column meant to call out or criticize any team or person, but it’s clear that Phaneuf lacks the ability to effectively communicate through and with the media. His interviews are dull at best and don’t give off any sort of leadership vibe.
It’s not just him, though. Guys like Phil Kessel, Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul also come off as quite guys for the most part. Aside from the media, you could make the argument that they shouldn’t have to stick up for their teammates because they need to be focused on producing offensively, but success on the score sheet isn’t the only important aspect to playing hockey.
Sure Phaneuf, Kessel, MacArthur and Lupul all put time into their own community; if you want to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, especially under Brian Burke, community involvement is a must. But do they contribute to the extent that teammate John-Michael Liles does?
For those of you who don’t know, Liles started the Liles’ Buds program, which, in short, recognizes kids who stand up against bullying. That’s a great cause and it’s certainly something to support, but Liles doesn’t posses many other leadership traits.
He doesn’t seem very vocal, isn’t the most energetic guy─at least not when speaking to the media─and doesn’t appear to be the “don’t mess with my teammates or you’ll have me to deal with me” type. Not that he should drop the gloves more often, but every player on the ice should be willing to take a stance against the opposition.
So where does this leave us? Well there are still those who bring a veteran presence to the locker room, but don’t seem to make an overly large impact. We’re talking about the Tim Connollys, the Matthew Lombardis, the David Steckels and the Mike Komisareks. There is also newly signed Jay McClement, but given that he is new to the team it’s still too early to judge.
After a year─two years in Komisarek’s case─of watching the above four (McClement excluded), it has quickly become clear to the average Joe that none of them are the type of player you would deem a standout leader in the room.
That’s enough of the bad, though. All of this down-talk is enough to make you think the Leafs don’t have the proper guidance to make it to the playoffs. The reality is that while the Maple Leafs might not have the leadership to help them succeed in the post-season, they do have enough to get them there.
The struggles of last season have undoubtedly brought the team closer. There’s no possible way a group of people can go through a collapse like the one the Leafs experienced during the latter half of he 2011-12 campaign and not become more tightly knit. They are now aware of how to avoid a slump of that magnitude, what to do when they begin to struggle and how to work their way out of it.
This simply shows that they all have enough leadership in each and everyone one of them to feed off each other. But the issue remains the same; the Maple Leafs still don’t have a player on their roster who will step up and take control in an appropriate manner.
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Lukas, a student at the University of Ottawa, covers the Toronto Maple Leafs on a part-time basis for The Hockey Writers. Contact Lukas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @LukasHardonk.