If Dion Phaneuf is to remain a Leaf next season, one of the more pressing questions is whether or not new coach Mike Babcock wants him as his captain.
Phaneuf, who has worn the ‘C’ for five years now in Toronto, has long been the subject of much debate, comparison and even worthiness of being the leader of one of the league’s biggest markets. The pressure often seems to weigh on him, and becomes a distraction he otherwise doesn’t need.
Stripping the Captaincy
Babcock will be Phaneuf’s fourth coach in six years dating back to Ron Wilson, who handed him the prestigious honour in the first place. For a team that until recently had its organizational structure in reverse – former coach Randy Carlyle was inherited by ex-GM Dave Nonis, Nonis himself was inherited by president Brendan Shanahan, and Shanahan will be inherited this summer by MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke’s replacement – it wouldn’t be that surprising if Babcock sought to reverse the trend and establish his authority by stripping Phaneuf of the captaincy. Would anyone bat an eye if Babcock took the scrutiny off Phaneuf, giving the rebuilding Leafs a clean slate, and the chance for new leaders to emerge over time?
But Phaneuf is the kind of player who, even if he doesn’t thrive in or embrace the spotlight, nevertheless wants to be in the centre of it. It’s why he signed a seven-year extension on the eve of the 2014 Winter Classic – arguably, the second-biggest moment in his Leafs tenure, following the team’s lone playoff series the previous spring. To suggest that Phaneuf would have wanted to stay, knowing he wouldn’t be captain might have been, and still probably would be, a tough pill to swallow.
As was on full display in San Jose this season, stripping the captaincy while keeping the player can create an even bigger circus, and that’s the last thing the Leafs need going into a rebuild.
Trade Phaneuf to Edmonton
Despite the Red Wings’ interest in Phaneuf at the trade deadline, Babcock’s departure likely changes GM Ken Holland’s approach. If that’s the case, the Leafs should focus their attention squarely on Edmonton.
It’s no secret that the Oilers need to upgrade their defence and inject some leadership into the lineup that can mentor its young core of forwards. Phaneuf, who is from Edmonton, would instantly satisfy both needs, while also being rejuvenated from getting a fresh start playing for his hometown team.
With Phaneuf set to earn $7 Million next year, the Oilers would probably have to part with one of their talented big-money forwards – Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Taylor Hall, who are all locked in with $6-Million cap hits – or a combination of a different young roster player who can jump right into Toronto’s lineup, plus a top prospect such as Leon Draisaitl, to make the deal happen.
With Phaneuf gone and no captain to start next season, the Leafs would provide a better and truer opportunity to their players to prove themselves, and seize a more prominent leadership role.
Keep him as your captain or make the decision to part ways, but don’t go halfway on the issue. The optics will just become more confusing for everyone involved.