On Wednesday night, after Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf played an awful game and contributed its worst moment, he apologized to his teammates for the lapse in judgment that cost them the game and possibly their playoff run.
He also told reporters he took responsibility for the worst mistake he’s made in 3 years 3 months as a Maple Leaf. On Thursday, at practice, the captain said it again.
“Obviously, you never like to make a mistake like that,” he said shortly before the team departed for Boston and Friday’s elimination game in their NHL playoff series with the Bruins. “Obviously that’s a momentum swing. I take full responsibility for that play.
“We’ve got to move forward. There’s no time to sit and feel sorry for what’s done. We’ve got to focus on Friday.”
After winning a second difficult game in Boston to even the series, the Leafs lost both at home to fall behind 3-1.
Head coach Randy Carlyle called Phaneuf’s monumental goof in overtime “a dagger” in the psyche of his young team, which otherwise played competitively enough to win.
Leafs general manager David Nonis is worried about the big picture. For him, and the fans too, the Leafs are learning how to be Stanley Cup contenders. They aren’t there yet.
Those who run the club learned two important things in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to Boston: Phaneuf has no future with the team as a No. 1 defenceman, and 22-year-old Jake Gardiner does.
A Leaf comeback against the battle-hardened, superior Bruins is as likely as Phaneuf developing hockey sense. His decision on Wednesday to pinch and go for the big hit cost his team the game and probably the series. Nice of Phaneuf to take the blame, but his body of work is the deeper problem.
It could be seen throughout his entire game against the Bruins.
The pinch on Boston winger Nathan Horton wasn’t even the first time that night that Phaneuf went for the big hit at the blueline, missed and created a Bruins scoring chance. He also gambled with the puck too often in the third period, creating anxious moments.
Phaneuf is 28. He’s been in the league eight seasons, yet continues to make the same mistakes as when he arrived.
The longer Phaneuf stays on the ice, the greater the chance one of those egregious decisions leads to a loss. He played 31:14 on Wednesday – minutes worthy of a No. 1 defenceman – and should not.
Look at Bruins defenceman and captain Zdeno Chara. He had a disastrous first period with a couple of defensive blunders that turned into Leaf goals. But as the night went on, and his ice time mounted, he got better. He finished with four assists, including one on the winning goal when he and David Krejci exploited Phaneuf’s folly.
What Nonis must do now is prepare Plan B, the one where someone other than Phaneuf is the captain, the face of the team and the top defenceman who logs 30 minutes on the ice every night. Phaneuf was brought here in January of 2010 by former Leaf GM Brian Burke to be that guy and showed he cannot.
The plan should include quietly putting Phaneuf on the trade market no later than the NHL draft at the end of June. Nonis will not hit a home run with a trade, nor should he expect to thanks to Phaneuf’s erratic play.
Nonis must be willing to accept a modest return. After all, the GM is well aware that the $6.5-million (all currency U.S.) salary-cap hit that is on the remaining year of Phaneuf’s contract represents a significant asset in a year when the cap will shrink to $64.3-million in the fall from $70.2-million.
Neither Nonis nor Carlyle has ties to Phaneuf. Nonis had some input into the trade with the Calgary Flames, but it was made by Burke. Carlyle inherited Phaneuf when he replaced Ron Wilson last season.
The original trade, in which Burke gave up a bunch of players he had no plans to use, remains a good one. Phaneuf was regarded as a high-risk, high-reward player who would benefit from a change of scenery. He turned out to be a high-risk, no-reward player, but it’s not as if the Leafs have the legacy of an expensive trade gone sour to worry about.
If there is no replacement available on the free-agent or trade markets, which is likely, then the Leafs can put together a No. 1 pairing by committee until Gardiner is ready to be the top guy. It is too early to promote a great prospect like Morgan Rielly, which could ruin his development, but Leaf veteran Cody Franson, for example, is playing his way into a major role.
It will not work to ask Phaneuf to take a pay cut in his next contract and accept a spot on the second or third pairing. He was brought here to be The Man. He was handed the captain’s role. The politics of the dressing room are too complicated for him to stay.
The season is not quite over, but it’s time to move on from Phaneuf.