Dion Phaneuf (left) and Phil Kessel (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The Toronto Maple Leafs have two on-ice leaders in Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. One of them is willing, but not able and the other is able, but not willing. Until they are either traded or placed in roles more suited for them, whom they hire to coach them won't make a difference.
Regardless of whether the Toronto Maple Leafs bring in Mike Babcock, Dan Bylsma, Guy Boucher, or while we’re the ‘B’ theme, the second coming of Toe Blake or Scotty Bowman, two essential elements of the culture of this team are going to have to change if it has any hope of success.
The first is way up where the guys who have the key to the executive bathroom reside. At some point, team president Brendan Shanahan is going to have to decide who is ultimately responsible for the on-ice product. Is it Shanahan himself? Is it current GM David Nonis, or is it someone with whom Shanahan is comfortable working?
The other, and this is far more important, is this organization is going to have to get around the fact that its leadership core is deeply, deeply flawed. And until that problem gets identified and corrected, this team is going absolutely nowhere.
On the one hand you have Phaneuf, who, for all his deficiencies, is trying hard to be a good captain and leader. He really is. Of the errors Phaneuf makes, there aren’t too many where you can say it was the result of a lack of care or effort. He wears the ‘C’ and he tries to do it the best way he can. The only problem is that he’s saddled with more responsibility, both on the ice and off, than he’s capable of handling. He is currently the Leafs leader in ice time on the Leafs top defense pairing and gets significant minutes at even strength as well as on the penalty kill and power play.
The problem with that is his skill set doesn’t warrant that kind of ice time. The Phaneuf Toronto fans have seen since the time he got here is not the dominating two-way force who seemed to benefit so much from playing with Roman Hamrlik early in his career in Calgary. Only once has Phaneuf managed to score more than 10 goals and his defensive blunders are legendary.
Kessel, of course, is the other way around. He has all the tools and talent in the world. Someone once remarked Kessel could score 30 goals just falling out of bed and that’s true. But he could probably score 50 if he had more inner drive to be the best player he can be. But it has become apparent that Kessel does not have that drive, nor does he seem to have any interest in being the on-ice leader of this group every night.
That may sound as an indictment of Phaneuf and Kessel, but it’s more an indictment of those who put them in those roles. Last I checked, neither player demanded to be traded to Toronto and if memory serves, the negotiations for long-term extensions for both players was not the least bit contentious. You can’t blame the players for taking the money and term that was offered to them.
When I think of Kessel, it reminds me of when Mike Modano played for the Dallas Stars. When Bob Gainey was GM of that team, the smartest thing he did was realize that, while Modano had a mother lode of natural gifts, he would never be a leader on that team. So Gainey loaded up on veterans such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbonneau, Pat Verbeek, Mike Keane and Craig Ludwig to take on that responsibility. And the Stars can say they won a Stanley Cup in 1999 because of it.
It’s not that the Leafs haven’t tried to surround Kessel with veteran leadership. They went out and signed David Clarkson to a massive contract to do just that, but it hasn’t worked out. A guy such as Stephane Robidas, a respected veteran, doesn’t have enough of a voice in the room. Otherwise, the Leafs wouldn’t have gotten away with snubbing their fans last month by skating off the ice like petulant brats the way they did after a victory.
Speaking of that night, it was interesting what now former coach Randy Carlyle said about it. He said the players were “entitled” to salute the crowd, or not to, in whichever way they liked. Come to think of it, that goes to the heart of the problem right there. Perhaps Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf need to go along with Carlyle, but that’s far easier said than done. Or perhaps they need to be shown the way by players more capable of doing that. Until one of those things happens, there’s not a coach in the world who will be able to lead this team to any long-term success.