The Resurgence of Phaneuf?

When Dion Phaneuf was anointed the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, many wondered if the once purported Norris candidate would manage to handle the expectations of being the Leafs' captain while also attempting to get his career back on track.

With nine games until the 2010-11 season comes to a close, Phaneuf's first campaign as captain has had its ups and downs. He's on pace to finish with around 30 points in 66 games, which is well below his career-high of 60 points in 2008. While his offensive game has regressed in the past couple of seasons, Phaneuf is still effective in the defensive end. He has recorded 157 hits, 100 blocked shots, 43 giveaways and 26 takeaways despite missing 16 games with a lacerated leg injury. In comparison, Phaneuf had 194 hits, 88 blocked shots, 51 giveaways and 52 takeaways in 82 games during the 2007-08 season. The decrease in takeaways coincides with the fact that his offensive numbers have decreased, thus joining the rush less frequently and instead committing to defence, as evidenced from the increase in blocked shots(88 to 100) in 25 fewer games.

On the surface, it's easy to cite Phaneuf's offensive regression as evidence to his inability to return to form. However, is that really the case? As mentioned above, his blocked shots totals have increased sigificantly since his 60-point campaign. From 2008 to 2011 (and counting) he went from 88 to 86 (two less games; produced 49 points) to 100 (81 games) to the same amount this season but with nine games remaining (for a total of 66 games).

So are Phaneuf's best days really behind him? Or is he a young defenseman building confidence while contributing at both ends of the ice? One cannot completely excuse his offensive regression, but if his play since the all-star break is any indication, Phaneuf is well on his way towards reaching the 50-point plateau once more. Since February 1, Phaneuf has produced 6 goals and 15 points in 24 games. If he could maitain that sort of consistency throughout the season, it's within the realm of possibility that he scores 20 goals in the near future. Although it's easy to forget, Phaneuf only turns 26 years old on April 10, so his prime is still a season or two away.

At this point, whether Phaneuf was the correct choice as team captain is irrelevant. He's wearing the 'C' and no one can accuse him for lack of heart. He's playing his best hockey during the most crucial point of the season for the Leafs. And as the team around him continues to improve, so will he. For a franchise that lacked considerable star power before general manager Brian Burke began molding his vision of a championship team, perhaps the Phaneuf era started a little too early for Toronto. Leafs fans wanted someone to turn the ship around and Phaneuf, despite dealing with his own struggles, was supposed to be our knight in shining armor. But as the Leafs continue to foster and import talent for the future, the weight of the world will lift from Phaneuf's shoulders, and his confidence will only increase.

Expectations need to grounded, and ultimately time will unveil the result, but perhaps it's not about the Leafs fixing Phaneuf, or Phaneuf fixing the Leafs. They're fixing each other while paving a better tomorrow.

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