I received a couple of really good questions when doing yesterday’s mailbag, that deserved a longer response than a paragraph or two. One of them was as follows:

Let’s say the Leafs don’t trade Phaneuf after all. Do you think they would be wise to strip him of the C?

There are a couple of things that you have to look at here.

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Stripping Precedent

This wouldn’t be the first time that an NHL captain remained on his team and gave up his C. Other cases include:

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  • Mike Modano to Brendan Morrow (Dallas, 2006). It took years for Modano to become comfortable with the idea of wearing the letter in the first place, but once he got there, he was quite disappointed with losing it. Modano mentioned that it split the room when it happened and it eventually soured his relationship with the team, which was part of the reason he was okay with finishing his career in Detroit.
  • Rob Brind’amour to Eric Staal (Carolina, 2010). Brind’amour was at the tail end of his career, and Staal had become the overwhelming face of the franchise years prior. This was more of a “passing of the torch” than anything.
  • Patrik Elias to Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey, 2007). Similar to Modano, but Elias only survived a year with the letter and never found his comfort zone. Langenbrunner as captain for several years, along with wearing the C for Team USA in the 2010 Olympics. Elias is still with the Devils, and has appeared to be content with not getting considered for the letter since.
  • Roberto Luongo to Henrik Sedin (Vancouver, 2010). This is a weird one. Luongo, thanks to NHL rules, was basically only the Captain off the ice. Duties on the ice were split across three assistants, which really just complicated matters further. Luongo eventually became the scapegoat for Vancouver’s failures, lost his faux-C to Sedin, and set on a multi-year journey of trade speculation before being traded to Florida for what amounts to slightly more than table scraps.
  • Vincent Lecavalier to Dave Andreychuk (Tampa Bay, 2002). Lecavalier was given the C early in his career, solely because he was the team’s best player and face of the franchise. The issue? He was young and ill-prepared for the role, and eventually gave it up to the veteran Andreychuk. The Lightning won a Stanley Cup under Dave’s regime, and Lecavalier eventually regained the letter.
  • Kenny Jonsson to Nobody (NY Islanders, 2000). This is similar to Lecavalier’s situation. Jonsson just couldn’t take the pressure and gave up the letter. The amazing thing about this one? Nobody took his place! The Islanders went a year without a captain, even with Jonsson playing for them, before handing the C to Michael Peca the next year.
  • Alexei Yashin to Daniel Alfredsson (Ottawa, 1999). Yashin decided to hold out on the last year of his contract, in search of a raise for the third time in five years. With this not being the first PR disaster Yashin had suffered with the team, they took away his C, suspended him for the season, and handed it to Daniel Alfredsson, who for all intents and purposes went on to be the best Senators player in history. The Sens ended up trading Yashin for Zdeno Chara and the 2nd overall pick in the 2001 draft (Jason Spezza).
  • Eric Lindros to Eric Desjardins (Philadelphia, 2000). Speaking of management issues, this one came as a result of Lindros’ terrible relationship with Bobby Clarke and criticism of the Flyers’ doctors for failing to diagnose a concussion. Lindros suffered two more in the same season, lost his Captaincy, and then sat out the following year as an RFA before being traded to the New York Rangers.
  • Craig Conroy to Jarome Iginla (Calgary, 2002). This is a similar situation to Brind’amour / Staal. Iginla was the runaway leader of the Flames at this point, and Conroy personally felt that he it would be best that he take over the reigns. He eventually left the team as a free agent, but came back a few years later and closed out his career with the Flames, and is now their assistant GM. Iginla went on to be Calgary’s most notable player in franchise history.
  • Trevor Linden to Mark Messier (Vancouver, 1997). The story to this one goes as follows: Linden “gave up” the C to Messier once he arrived, but Mess had actually been promised the letter when he signed as a free agent. On top of that, he also demanded to use his typical #11, despite it being unofficially retired. Both requests were made, Linden was traded almost immediately for Bryan McCabe and Todd Bertuzzi, and went on to play the worst hockey of his career, missing the playoffs in every year. Considered by many to be one of the biggest disasters in Canucks history, culminating in a buyout after year three and a subsequent lawsuit, wherein Messier squeezed out another $6 million from the team.
  • Ron Francis to Randy Ladouceur (Hartford, 1990). Francis was the poster boy of an ill-performing Whalers core, and lost his captaincy months before a trade to Pittsburgh. He went on to win two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, being named captain twice  while Mario Lemieux missed seasons (once to injury, once to his first retirement), before heading back to his original organization, which had moved to Carolina. He was their captain when they went on a run to the 2002 Cup Finals, and oddly enough, retired a  Leaf. He’s now Carolina’s GM.
  • Keith Tkachuk to Kris King (Winnipeg, 1995). Tkachuk signed a five year offer sheet from the Chicago Blackhawks, which included a $6M first year. The Jets matched, but removed the letter off of his chest due to his lack of commitment to the club. Oddly enough, thanks to an injury to King, Tkachuk was renamed captain for Winnipeg’s final game before relocating.
  • Darryl Sittler to Nobody (Toronto, 1979). Sittler had a rift with Leafs coach and GM Punch Imlach, and as such, Imlach attempted to trade him. Upon refusing to waive his No Trade Clause, Imlach traded Lanny McDonald to prove a point, which lead to Sittler literally ripping the C off his jersey and handing it to his boss. The Leafs went without a captain for a bit, before Sittler returned to the role for a couple more years before eventually being traded to Phiadelphia in 1982.
  • Brett Hull to Shayne Corson to Wayne Gretzky (1995 & 1996). Hull’s letter was removed from him as a result of public criticism of head coach Mike Keenan. Eventually, Keenan was fired, but at this point Corson had already taken the C. It didn’t last very long though, as the Blues added Wayne Gretzky at the deadline, and you just don’t allow the biggest name in hockey history to not wear the C, do you? Well, until the Rangers did exactly that in naming Brian Leetch their captain once Messier left for Vancouver.

Most of these situations consist of the following:

  • Public debacles with team staff.
  • Guys about to be traded anyway.
  • Passing of the torch to a proven young leader.
  • Repair of a “too soon” moment for an unproven young star.

None of these situations really apply to Dion Phaneuf. The only person he’s ever held accountable for anything in the public eye is himself, he came in here in the youth to vet transition age, and if you’re doing this instead of trading him, he’s not about to be traded. 

The Lead Example

There is one example that I left out, and that’s Patrick Marleau losing his letter to Rob Blake in 2009. This is a Lecavalier-like situation, where the Sharks had second thoughts about naming their historical franchise player as their leader at such a young age. The issue, however, wasn’t that they felt that he wasn’t mature enough to have the role yet, but that the team itself was collapsing.

Go figure, that’s the situation that Leafs fans probably apply to this. They look at the eighteen wheeler, they look at Game 7, and they look at this year. They aren’t able to come up with a good explanation as to why it happened (spoiler: 11/12 was a shooting and save percentage dip, not helped by playing James Reimer through post-concussion symptoms) Game 7 was a 10 minute blip for a team that was exceeding expectations, and this year was what happens when one of the worst defensive teams in history forgets how to score as well and suffers goaltending history), so they look at things like “character”, “leadership”, “compete”, and other things that can’t be quantified as what’s to blame. It wasn’t the odds coming back against a long term trend of poor team performances. It was a mental breakdown.

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The Sharks hoped that handing the C to Blake would make a difference. Blake had been there before, captaining the Kings in two different multi-year stretches. People will point to the fact that the Sharks went to the conference finals and that Marleau set a carer high in points as proof of a successful idea, but was it really? The Sharks of the year before were better in the regular season, and lost in an upset to a team that that took the defending champs and near repeating Detroit Red Wings to 7. The Sharks of the year after needed six games to beat a weak Avalanche roster, buzzsawed through a weaker Wings roster than the year prior, and got swept by the eventual cup champs. The team success is a wash.

As for Marleau, he was healthy the entire year, got a winger upgrade from Devin Setoguchi to Dany Heatley, and spent more time with Dan Boyle on the point with him. He also hasn’t hit those numbers since nor have the Sharks broken through their playoff struggles.

Is There Even A Candidate?

Besides, who would even be the “Rob Blake” of this group, if you want to pretend that the above example is the one to base this situation of? 

The Leafs don’t have an old, grizzled veteran leader to give the job to. What would you like to do, give the captaincy to Jerred Smithson? No disrespect to him, but I’d be disappointed to see him on the team period next year. 

Do you sign a guy? Sorting the oldest quality free agents by age, your best options in terms of leadership and making this team better in some way are probably Jarome Iginla and Dan Boyle. There are rumours of an Iginla/Phaneuf power struggle leading to Dion’s original departure from Calgary, and Boyle is part of that Sharks core that likely has a poor mental reputation around the league. 

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Maybe you don’t take the vet approach? Maybe it’s time to promote the franchise player? But of course you look at Phil Kessel there, and he’s not somebody who has a reputation for being publicly outspoken, which is absolutely a requirement in Toronto. Phaneuf gets whined about by reporters for missing one media scrum out of several hundred, could you imagine Phil’s infrequent schedule?

What about taking the young talent approach? No, that probably won’t work either. Whether they deserve it or not, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner are oft-criticized for their immaturity. Morgan Rielly probably doesn’t have much of a presence. You’re stuck here again.

How about the longest serving Leaf? Probably hard to do when it looks like the Leafs are considering letting Nikolai Kulemin walk as a UFA.

Maybe just pick the fan favourites? There’s been frequent suggestions of Joffrey Lupul, but I’m not quite sure what he’s done other than look really pretty in a suit and listen to cool music. Besides, do you want a captain who has a habit of being on the IR once or twice a year? Dave Bolland fits that “character” role well, but giving him the C requires signing him to a new contract, which doesn’t seem like the best idea.

Perhaps the best option, if you must make a change? Name nobody. Just like the Leafs in 2008/09, a group of low-mid range players who doubled down on their efforts every night, swarmed other teams, and were quite underrated minus the fact that they may have had the worst goaltending support in this team’s modern history. But even then, that won’t be seen as a repair to this magic “crisis”, just an acknowledgement it (supposedly) exists; something the team has already done.

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In Summation

I don’t know if Dion Phaneuf is a great captain. I don’t know if he’s a positive, or if he’s a detriment in that regard. Heck, in a modern game where every player to come up through the ranks was probably a captain on their teams since before they learned how to type, I don’t know if it matters which guy has the C to anybody but the public. It may just be “lets sell some jerseys and maybe you can talk to the refs and media, and we’ll deal with the room as a whole”. I don’t know.

But I do know that the implications of removing that letter from a player are pretty big, and there better be a very obvious reason. I don’t think there’s an obvious one, an obvious replacement, or any sort of obvious positive result that could come out of it. If you really believe that this team’s issue is the letter on Dion Phaneuf’s chest, you have to remove him, not the stitching. I don’t think that’s a great idea either, but it’s the gravity of the situation.

Or just name David Clarkson captain. Gotta justify him somehow.

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  • FlareKnight

    I’m not sure why the fancy stats guys like Phaneuf at all. He is the epitome of grit, character in the Clarkson mold though not quite as overpaid. The leafs like to overpay for these gritty and leadership players like Phaneuf but whose production and most importantly corsi is suspect.

  • FlareKnight

    This doesn’t really have to do with the main thrust of your article here, but:
    I still haven’t forgiven the Stars for stripping Modano of his captaincy. Clown move, and I blame that for all the bad things that have happened to the franchise since.
    Also… if you think Luongo was traded for almost nothing, you need to keep yourself more appraised of prospects. Markstrom is a highly regarded goaltending prospect. He and Lack set up the Canucks very well for future success (like the Kings, I’d expect one to emerge, and the other to be used in a trade to acquire some nice assets). If you are trying to win now, yeah, it’s not a great move. But looking at the Canucks’ roster, it seems pretty clear that they aren’t going anywhere; time to rebuild. Seems like they, unlike the Flames, have realized that in time. Were I the GM of a team that was going for it, the first call I made would be to Vancouver.
    I really do like their youth: Horvat, Shinkaruk, Jensen, Gaunce, Cassels, Kassian has NHL experience but is still developing his game, even Corrado.

  • STAN

    Captains are supposed to show leadership. I haven’t seen any from Phaneuf, on or off the ice.

    The Leafs need a thinking person who who can get through a media scrum without invoking every known sports cliche.

    • TGT23

      Do you spend time with the team off the ice to properly judge that? Are you in the dressing room?

      And considering how over-reactive Toronto sports media are to every syllable spoken from any athlete, why should any player offer more than cliche? So people Like you can turn around and say “see?! A real captain shouldn’t say that!”?

      Besides, all hockey players minus the odd Bryzgalov are cliche machines. Are you actually going to say Crosby isn’t a good captain because he doesn’t give great interviews?

      Please, make that argument.

  • FlareKnight

    Phaneuf is an amazing captain. He’s the only rightful captain on this team and he does an impeccable job.

    I’ll never understand why so many Leaf ‘fans’ piss and whine about him, this team would have been an even bigger defensive joke if we didn’t have him.

    The worst defensive team in recent NHL history is not about to trade away their number one, 20+ minutes per game defensemen. The NHL’s crown jewel and most important franchise is not about to strip their player of his captaincy.

  • Kanuunankuula

    TBH can’t see a way leafs come out on top in trading Dion. He’s pretty worn-out this season, and I don’t see anyone giving us any better D-man in a trade, prob will be a downgrade. 1C is as doubtful. Retaining salary aswell, really can’t afford that anyway. Rather pay him to play here than somewhere else. Just play him less, though Randy is still behind the bench, so…

  • jasken

    Nice read Jeff

    If the players have voted no confidence with the current leaders, the cannot remain as such. This young group needs to choose their leaders for their identity to be established.

    It might not be Phaneuf at all it might be players rather go to Ranger then Gunnarsson, Bozak and JVR instead of Mclement and Lupul. We dont know where it starts or finishes were not in the dressing room or seeing how they interact with each other.

    Phaneuf’s team is gone you cant expect these players to follow him. It’s nothing against him personally they have quite possibly chosen other people as their leaders.

  • Jeremy Ian

    When teams are playing badly, the captain looks bad. It’s inevitable.

    Dion’s data:

    TOI/game: 23.3 mins (24/82 games played over 25 mins; 2nd on team after Kessel and Gardiner). Reminder: this is vs Crosby et al.

    Points: 31 (8th on team; ahead of Gardiner, Rielly, Kulemin, and of course Clarkson (#$^!))

    Plus/minus: +2 (3rd on team; only Gunnarson and Bodie ahead of him; only 7 Leafs had a positive +/- this year). Reminder: this is vs opposition top lines.

    Games played: 80/82.

    Hits: 227

    Blocked shots: 156

    Top iCorsi among D (ahead of Gardiner); 6th on team 5×5

    Take a look at his zone starts this year:

    37.5% Def ZS
    39.8% Neu ZS
    22.7% Off ZS

    since 2007-08, every year the guy’s offensive zone starts has gone down and the defensive zone starts has risen.

    We can go on and get into more elaborate data.

    I am not sure what else one would want from a “C” that plays on a team with structural problems.

    Stripping the C would just compound the mess this team is in.