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Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)

Leafs asking Phaneuf to do too much Add to ...

When you lose as many games as the Toronto Maple Leafs have of late, everyone is going to get some blame.

And when you're the captain, you're going to get it more than most.

So, with the Leafs winning just five times in essentially the last two months, Dion Phaneuf is a man under fire this week – and it's mostly been for his ability to wear the 'C'.

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He's faced questions from the media such as "Have you provided the kind of leadership the captain of this franchise needs to at a time like this?"

He's had stories written about how he's an unfit captain and bad teammate, with rumours of a rift with Luke Schenn coming up more and more.

(For what it's worth, players I spoke with this week said there's no issue between the two and that they've been out to dinners with both Phaneuf and Schenn present. Those two also share an agent in Don Meehan.)

Phaneuf is an easy target. He's unpopular, around the league (as evidenced by the "most overrated" polls that come out every year), among many fans and with some in the press due to the often mind-numbing interviews he gives.

He's also not always the savviest defensive player, and playing more than 25 minutes on a team with goaltending issues, you end up seeing his mistakes more than most.

And that right there is a large part of the problem.

Phaneuf is being asked to do a lot on this team. Leafs GM Brian Burke basically has him positioned to (a) be the face and voice of the team, as captain, (b) face other team's top lines and play the most minutes, (c) produce points and (d) hit, fight and be one of the few Leafs to actually deliver on Burke's promise of a "truculent" team.

The question is: How well suited is he really to fill all of those roles? How many players can fill all four on a good team?

At best, Phaneuf should likely be asked to provide only (c) and (d), letting more experienced and, frankly, personable players handle (a) and better defensive players to handle (b).

But Burke, and former coach Ron Wilson, have always played Phaneuf up to be this team's top player and a kind of answer to the Leafs' prayers – a do-it-all saviour for what has long ailed the franchise.

As was the case in Calgary, however, this is a player with holes in his game, one who will never be able to live up to his behemoth contract and who would be far better in more of a supporting role.

The Leafs have, in some respects, set Phaneuf up to fail here by putting him on such a pedestal right from the beginning, especially considering how much he had struggled in Calgary prior to that 2010 blockbuster trade.

(Toronto has actually been fortunate his offensive production has rebounded so significantly.)

He's not Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara or, in a comparison often made in Phaneuf's early years, Scott Stevens. He's not the type of all-around player who is going to excel as a No. 1 defenceman, and Burke would be well served by trying to find someone to bring in who could bump Phaneuf down the depth chart at least one spot.

With all of the needs on this team – adding a No. 1 goaltender and No. 1 centre are at the top of the off-season to-do list – Burke may not get a chance to focus on his blueline, but it's that defence core that has let them down as much as anything over the last 25 games.

It lacks experience and, more importantly, it lacks the kind of defensive acumen needed on a contending team.

So, sure, Phaneuf certainly deserves some of the blame for the collapse. You can blame his leadership, and you can blame him for the defensive blunders.

The reality, however, is this was always the way things were going to go with him trying to live up to Burke's billing.

He's not that player, and he never will be.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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