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Ulmer On Why Phaneuf Should Be The Next Captain

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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I’m starting to think the best decision Brian Burke has made involved doing absolutely nothing.

From the day he took over, Burke has refused to placate Leaf fans by naming a captain.

The fans’ wishes were easily understood. For the last word on leadership they could always look to the guy with the C over his heart.

Mats Sundin wore the letter with immense dignity for 11 years. Every year when new players arrived in Toronto, they said the one thing they did not understand until arriving here was Sundin’s hold on the dressing room.

Before Sundin came the two most beloved players in recent memory, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark. The pantheon of former captains includes Hall of Famers Hap Day, Charlie Conacher, Red Horner, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong, Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler. If you are looking for a tough act to follow how about eight Hall of Famers and two more Gilmour and Sundin, likely to come.

But somewhere along the line, the letter took on a life of its own. The idea took hold that bestowing a letter would imbue players with the leadership so evident in previous captains. It’s a bit like what happened when Jason Blake scored 40 goals and signed with the Leafs. He hit 40 at the peak of his game and no amount of wishing could make him a 40-goal scorer again, even if his history and salary dictated it should.

The staple of every Leafs’ online chat (aside from ridiculously one-sided trade scenarios) always involved the captaincy: Why won’t the Leafs name one, how about Ian White or Mike Komisarek or Matt Stajan?

Burke, as is his habit, held out for more and he did so for very sound reasons.

“It's the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, not the captain of just any team,” Burke said again and again. “We want to make sure we have a guy who measures up. If that means we play without a captain, we play without a captain."

And they did to generally disastrous results.

But now they have their man. And now you know why Burke was wise for waiting.

He is of course, Dion Phaneuf and I understand the intemperate nature of a prediction that comes after Phaneuf has played just one game. Sue me.

I am not saying Phaneuf will be captain. I am saying why he should be.

Yep, after one game. Why wait?

Before you wonder about Phaneuf’s departure from Calgary, let me remind you of this: every good player leaves every team with a specter of doubt. It’s human nature to ask why a team would trade an accomplished player. The Flames were on a nine-game losing skid and clearly the dynamic in the dressing room had gone south. A team coached and managed by the flinty Sutter brothers would naturally enough come into conflict with a player as intense as Phaneuf. Who was right? Who cares?

Gilmour came to Toronto from Calgary in the wake of a rancorous contract fight and left when it became apparent the Leafs were rebuilding.  Wendel Clark left Toronto because Cliff Fletcher wanted the younger and healthier Mats Sundin. Sittler asked for a trade after tiring of Leafs’ management. Great players are traded because management makes hard decisions based on compounding reasons no one outside the manager’s suite can know.

So all you can do is judge Dion Phaneuf by his body of work which is pretty spectacular. Runner-up for the Norris in his first year, he remains one of the most feared defenseman in the game and his point shot can revitalize a power play even as rickety as the Leafs’ first unit. Phaneuf can infuse courage into a lineup. Players often say they are not ‘rah-rah guys’ but rather ‘guys who lead by example.’  Phaneuf is both and he arrives as a player eager to lead.

Management was waiting for Luke Schenn to mature so they could pin the C on a great young defenceman. They were set to wait as Schenn struggled.

They have the talented young defenceman right now. Soon, the C will be back.
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