I remember January 2010, the cover of the Toronto Sun was taped to my bedroom door. My Dad, the biggest Leaf's fan that I know, was ecstatic. "Neon Dion," the paper called him. Toronto thought they were getting a very different player back then. Looking back on the 399 games that Phaneuf has played in the blue and white though, I think the best days are still ahead.
Toronto head coach, Mike Babcock, said this week that he thinks Phaneuf has been fantastic. He touched upon the fact that things have "chipped away" at Dion - given all of the pressure the city and the league has put on him.
It's almost cliché to critique the Captain now. The Leaf's struggles are much deeper than his +/- ratings (which, by the way, are among the best on the team this season). I think the much more accurate assessment would be that he's found his role much easier with Babcock as the bench boss. When you have a head coach that believes in you and says so in the most genuine way to the media, the dressing room dynamic drastically improves. Whether the media likes to understand, or not, a large part of hockey is what goes on behind the scenes. If that curtain is pulled back, things start to go awry.
The team's history has proven there should always be a solid relationship between the Captain and the Coach/Management. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic was back in 1979 when Darryl Sittler took the 'C' off of his jersey in protest. This move was a consequence of many incidents built up with then General Manager and Head coach, Punch Imlach. The Leaf's management team would have to reportedly pay $500,000 to get Sittler to waive his no-trade clause, so Imlach traded Sittler's bestfriend and teammate, Lanny McDonald, to the Colorado Rockies. Sittler believed the Captain should be the line of communication between the players and management so he was unhappy with the decision made.
(More interesting stories like this one found on Bardown. )
It would be complete speculation that Randy Carlyle, Peter Horachek or Ron Wilson didn't get along with Phaneuf, because again of the whole 'closed curtain' element of hockey. Wilson, who gave Phaneuf the captaincy, backed him up in many situations as well. Even during Carlyle's tenure.
Should Dion be the number one defensemen? No, I don't think so. My point is that he's not as bad as everyone has labelled him. He's playing a main role on a losing team. His advanced statistics are definitely not flattering. Since Babcock's systems were implemented, they've worked in Dion's favour. Specifically, team's are getting less shots against Toronto. The Captain already has 35 blocked shots and is chipping in on offensive chances.
The argument that his role as Captain has taken a tole on Phaneuf's play is fair, but to jump to a conclusion before we see how the rest of the season plays out would be wrong.
When would be the right time to finally make the conclusion that Dion Phaneuf is not worthy of wearing a 'C'? Definitely not 27 games into a season under the highest paid coach in the NHL.
Sittler had the right idea, the whole dynamic of team management combined with a relationship with the team's Captain is vital for a franchise's success. The Leafs want to come out and beat the Devils tonight FOR Lamoriello - there's comradery behind the curtain.
Recently, Phaneuf told the media,
The Blue Jays were a perfect example of a team 'buying into a system', it may not happen over night, but if the Captain is believing in the management, it certainly cannot hurt things.
I started this blog by stating Toronto thought they were getting a different player back in January, 2010. They thought they were getting 'Neon Dion', well, the defenseman is delivering some pretty believable hits that have me thinking Leaf's fans are as close as ever to that hard-hitting Flame's Phaneuf.