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Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf looks on after deflecting a puck past his own goalie as the New York Islanders teammates celebrate during third period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf looks on after deflecting a puck past his own goalie as the New York Islanders teammates celebrate during third period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Shoalts: Lack of leadership and hockey smarts signal need for new Leaf captain Add to ...

There is surprising unanimity among NHL people about what ails the Toronto Maple Leafs. It is not surprising that it runs counter to the hair-on-fire Leafs Nation types who want general manager David Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle and the team trainer fired.

An entirely unscientific survey of several NHL pro scouts, who are paid to watch and dissect other teams, and general managers (who were promised anonymity for their frankness) produced no one who thought there should be major changes. But all think some change is necessary to fix the biggest problems on the team – a lack of leadership and hockey smarts among the players (hence their inability to carry out a game plan) and a defence corps that has too many offensive-minded players and not enough physical ones.

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The most interesting idea came from a scout who said Dion Phaneuf doesn’t need to be traded (not that Nonis could move that huge contract anyway), but he might play better if the captain’s role was taken away from him. Everyone surveyed said Phaneuf’s hockey sense is not the greatest, that he makes too many mistakes for someone who has been in the NHL for 10 seasons.

The idea is that, without the added pressure of being the designated leader, maybe Phaneuf can get back to being the defenceman who can deliver the timely hit and provide some needed offence. “[Phaneuf] can be an effective player, but in taking away the C does he go back to being as effective as he can be?” one scout wondered.

Phaneuf followed what might have been his worst game as a Maple Leaf last week (against St. Louis) with two okay games against the New Jersey and Detroit and all three were just more notches on the Leafs’ eight-game losing streak that effectively dashed their playoff hopes. A scout who watched the Detroit game said Phaneuf looked like a player who wanted to not make a mistake, rather than to make a difference.

“You need strong personalities and I don’t see that in this group,” another of our observers said of the Leafs. “They are a fragile bunch.”

Defensively, the consensus is that Carl Gunnarsson and Tim Gleason are the only regulars who can play in their own ends. Cody Franson is considered okay offensively, but also prone to bad decisions. The unit needs at least one more defensive-minded player who is also physical.

Rookie Morgan Rielly drew universal praise for his burgeoning offensive talents while fellow youngster Jake Gardiner is seen as having a limited up-side as an offence-only type. “I see some of the things [Rielly] does instinctively and say he’s going to be really good down the road,” one scout said.

With Jonathan Bernier establishing himself as the No. 1, none of our respondents see goaltending as a problem. “He is a cut above,” said one.

Up front, there was general agreement the Leafs need a lot more support for the top line of centre Tyler Bozak and wingers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. However, a couple people would like to see a little more leadership and consistency from Kessel.

Centre Nazem Kadri and linemate Joffrey Lupul got the most mentions when the Leafs’ lack of secondary scoring was discussed, particularly during this losing streak. Kadri, 23, may hit the 50-point mark again, but it was questioned how many of those points came in crucial situations.

Carlyle’s reluctance to use his fourth line was brought up as a possible reason for the scoring problem. The added ice time may have worn down the other three lines, one scout said. Another big problem was the loss of third-line centre Dave Bolland for most of the season due to a severed ankle tendon. One scout said this took away the one thing the Leafs really needed from their forward lines – two-way play.

The scout also thought Bolland’s absence played a role in linemate David Clarkson’s horrible season. Another observer thought Clarkson got too caught up in living up to his big contract, but both think there is a good chance he can settle down next season into the grinding game he was brought here to play.

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