You Give Me My Captain and I'll Give You Four Magic Beans
I read this article the other night and began thinking about the Dion Phaneuf trade. The fact that Brian Burke was able to acquire his cornerstone player and eventual Leaf captain for basically nothing still boggles my mind. Burke unloaded an underachieving pending UFA in Matt Stajan; a small, tweener defender having a career year (who was also a pending RFA looking to cash in) in Ian White; a streaky, run of the mill winger in Niklas Hagman; and a journeyman fourth line winger in Jamal Mayers. In addition to Phaneuf the Leafs also obtained well thought of at the time Flames prospect Keith Aulie and veteran winger Fredrick Sjostrom.
When the shocking trade was announced, fans and media alike were confused as to why Calgary would have ridded themselves of a former all-star defenseman, a former Norris finalist and an elite (albeit underachieving) talent in the league. The Flames immediately began spinning the trade. Articles were written praising Stajan as the first line centre Calgary so desperately lacked. Claims were made pertaining to Phaneuf’s lack of character, and inability to get along with Flames leader and defense partner Robyn Regehr. Professional analysts legitimately argued that Ian White was a better option, and could offer the Flames more than Phaneuf.
The Flames Eighteen Months Later
Calgary has failed to qualify for the post season since the trade was made. White is headed to his fourth team since he left the Leafs. Stajan ended the 2010-2011 season with 31 points (Phaneuf finished with 30 in ten less games), toiling on the fourth line. Hagman finished with 27 points, but also cleared waivers as the Flames attempted to find another home for his contract. Mayers left after the Flames after the 2009-2010 season ended.
Whereas the Leafs and Phaneuf have been able to become a perfect fit. The benefits that Phaneuf provides the Leafs are not seen on the scoreboard. It’s not his booming slapshot from the point that has made this Burke’s best move during his Leafs tenure. The biggest boost that Phaneuf has provided the Leafs is accountability. Not since Gary Roberts left Toronto has their been a player that has made both his, and the opposing team, accountable for their actions.
A true leader not only sets the tone and establishes an identity for his team, but they also signify to the opposition that his is not a team that will go quietly. From the onset of his Leafs career, Dion has set the tone physically in the Leafs zone. He has led by clearing the front of the net, going after the opposing teams leaders and when the Leafs are pushed he leads the charge in pushing back. Before Phaneuf arrived there were countless games where the Leafs were pushed around and took abuse. There was an obvious lack of leadership and backbone to the blue and white. Burke noted it during his first season, and many times addressed the fact that an eighteen-year-old Luke Schenn was the only player who wore the Leafs sweater with pride.
If you look around the league there are these intimidating, physical defenseman, who set the tone on a nightly basis. Players such as: Shea Weber (Nashville), Chris Pronger (Philadelphia), Zdeno Chara (Boston), Brent Seabrook (Chicago) and Kevin Bieska (Vancouver). These players have taken over from the old guard of Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Rob Blake. And the future is on the horizon with Karl Alzner, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn, Jack Johnson and Tyler Myers.
Eighteen months have passed since Burke made the Phaneuf trade, and looking back whenever you can acquire your team leader and captain for spare parts you’ve achieved something substantial. Whether his offensive game returns or not (it looked to have returned late last season 15 points in the final 24 games), the Leafs are an improved team, with a true captain and an identity.
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