Just wait until Brian Burke hears that his team captain spent 20 minutes last week talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs without once mentioning the word “truculence,” choosing instead to focus on words like “fast,” and “up-tempo.” Shoot, there wasn’t even a “gritty” dropped in.
Dion Phaneuf and his teammates hit the ice at the MasterCard Centre this weekend, with suggestions by the Leafs general manager that they have, maybe, one vacancy on the forward lines still fuel for debate. That’s a remarkable number of guaranteed jobs on a club that hasn’t made the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and right now wouldn’t likely find a place on too many people’s lists of the top-eight teams in the Eastern Conference.
But that’s stuff for the future, no? One certainty is that the Leafs blueline corps should be improved, with the off-season acquisitions of John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson and positive signals from minor leaguers such as Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker. Or, at least different.
This is the second season of Phaneuf’s captaincy, and he was aware the second he was named to the position that in this marketplace it meant not only his game but his personality and demeanour would become a talking point. Judging leadership and what makes a good leader, let alone analyzing its actual impact on circumstances, is a mug’s game but it makes for good copy in the absence of a playoff race, or at least whenever looking for a silver lining becomes tiresome.
Phaneuf one on one is a different cat than the brows-furrowed guy standing in the middle of the dressing room after a loss. He initiates discussion, challenges notions as opposed to looking for an obvious verbal escape and makes it abundantly clear that he is fully comfortable in his role as captain.
Not only that, he thinks he’s a pretty good one, too.
“I said when I started in the league that I wanted to get better every day and improve every day and, also, learn something every day,” Phaneuf said last week at the NHL office in New York. “You have to learn about leadership, too. You have to be open, and use feedback. The biggest thing when you find yourself leading a group is that it’s not just one guy; you need a room where every guy has their own way of leading.
“You definitely don’t say ‘this is the only way of doing it.’ You don’t say it’s ‘my way or the highway.’
“But,” he added, “I also said when I was named captain that I was not going to change the way I play or the person I am.”
As someone who played for the Calgary Flames, it stands to reason that Phaneuf would use Jarome Iginla as a reference point when asked what makes a good captain or a good teammate. But he says that the first NHL player to make a lasting impact on him was Bryan Marchment.
“When I was with Calgary, they brought him in to work with me,” Phaneuf said. “It was more about, I guess, becoming a professional. I learned a lot about the day-in, day-out thing of being a professional hockey player. ‘Mush’ sat by me on the plane; we lived in the same building.”
Phaneuf has been taking part in informal skates with his Leafs teammates and he has already has his interest piqued on a couple of other fronts. Nazem Kadri “looks a lot more stronger and more confident on the ice,” said Phaneuf. And the captain has a sense that Matthew Lombardi will have a say in how the team does this season.
But it’s going to have to start in the Leafs’ own end. Phaneuf believes the Leafs will be a confident group in front of goaltender James Reimer – he thinks they’ll reflect Reimer’s personality – and he sees a defensive corps that can grow together. His goal is to see the group emerge as one of the league’s best units, but for now he’ll settle for it having depth and a sense of utility.
“We have guys who can pretty much play in every different situation,” Phaneuf said. “One thing we won’t be is one-dimensional.”
All to the good, because it’s about time for a new set of buzz-words around this team. The old ones didn’t work.