As the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dion Phaneuf has become a lightning rod to the storm of criticism surrounding the team on their current eight-game losing streak.
Maple Leaf fans are in disbelief over what looked like a guaranteed return to the playoffs that is now unlikely given the devastating losing streak. Unfortunately, in their emotional state Leafs Nation is unfairly putting the blame on Phaneuf and his awful play during the past eight games.
There’s no question Phaneuf has played poorly and he deserves some of the blame for the losing streak just like every player on the roster, however, of all the players the captain actually deserves the least amount of criticism.
No player on the Maple Leafs gets harassed more from the opposition than Phaneuf and no captain in the league receives less support from his teammates when he does. Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk don’t get harassed by opposing teams more than Phaneuf, and it’s become pathetic that his teammates don’t have his back. If Mats Sundin was ever harassed by the opposition the way Phaneuf is on a nightly basis, the opposition would have to fear Tie Domi, Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker coming for their heads. There is nothing close to that same kind of protection or support for Phaneuf on this Maple Leaf team.
Some will argue that Phaneuf should stick up for himself and that if he wants to be considered a tough guy then he can’t rely on teammates saving him. However, Scott Stevens was as tough as they come on the blue-line and he still had Bobby Holik and Randy McKay watching his back. Even the biggest player in the league Zdeno Chara has support from Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton and Brad Marchand to make his life easier.
It’s bad enough the only other decent defenseman Phaneuf has on the blue-line is a teenager considering Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner are known more for their offensive abilities than their defensive talents. It is flat out unacceptable that Phaneuf’s teammates don’t remove the distractions each night trying get their captain off his game. The same game plan is used against Phaneuf every game as the opposition tries to get under his skin, because if they get him to take a penalty then there is nobody left to play quality defense for Toronto.
Now that the Maple Leafs have committed to Phaneuf for the next several seasons, it’s time general manager Dave Nonis acquires players who understand the importance of protecting their captain. Considering how Phaneuf’s play is directly related to the team’s success, making his life easier should have been something that was addressed a long time ago.