Captain Phaneuf

The rich tradition of the Calgary Flames providing the Toronto Maple Leafs with leadership via misguided trades has added a new chapter.

Dion Phaneuf, dealt to the Leafs by the Flames last January for a puzzling assortment of Leaf parts that didn’t quite add up to what the Flames needed to make the playoffs, was named the Leafs’ captain Monday – succeeding, well, no one, since the Buds went captainless last season. (Apparently coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke didn’t think anyone was up to the task. They were probably right.)

The announcement adds yet another echo from this trade to what is widely considered the worst deal the Flames have ever made in their 38-year history – the deal that sent Doug Gilmour to Toronto in 1992. Gilmour became the Leafs’ captain, unquestioned inspirational leader, a dominant two-way star in the league and one of the greatest Leafs in the franchise’s long history, while reviving the team and helping them become contenders almost instantly. The guys the Flames got in return made no impact whatsoever, were gone from Calgary within a couple of years and the Flames faded into one of the most miserable eras in franchise history.

While the echoes are certainly there, it’s obviously way too early to say that the Phaneuf deal is anywhere near as disastrous as the Gilmour deal for Calgary, nor could anyone say it’s anywhere near as successful for the Leafs.

Phaneuf, while impressing his coach and GM with his willingness to speak his mind and throw his weight around with his new team (Burke and Wilson are no shrinking violets themselves, and actually seem to find it refreshing – at least so far – that Dion will bluntly tell them how to do their jobs), has hardly been the dominant, fortune-changing force on the ice with the Leafs that Gilmour was almost immediately. Phaneuf scored just 2 goals and 10 points in 26 games in Toronto after the trade, while posting a plus-minus of -2. In other words, he continued the kind of inconsistent play and lack of production that made him expendable in Calgary in the first place. (With the Leafs, apparently, that’s good enough to be crowned the team’s new king. Go figure.)

Meanwhile, the Flames got a couple of players in Ian White and Matt Stajan that – assuming White can be signed and kept around as a restricted free agent – could prove valuable long-term components to the roster. I still wish the Flames had extracted some top-flight prospects or high draft picks from someone in exchange for Phaneuf, but some solid secondary scoring and a top-four defenceman with offensive upside, that’s not bad value.

As for Phaneuf, the Leafs may not quite be getting the kind of leadership they need. Sure, he’s a strong personality and a physical force who plays with an edge and speaks up in the dressing room, but he’s also a guy who fought openly with his last coach, who adjusted very badly to attempts to improve his defensive play, and who (depending on whether you believe the rumours) may or may not have had an affair with a teammate’s wife. And he’s a guy who has yet to live up to his vast promise – or vast salary – since joining the league; his development has seriously stalled the past couple of years. He seems like more a riddle to be solved than a leader to be relied upon.

In fact, Phaneuf reminds me of another young star who was named a team captain at an early age 15 years ago – Eric Lindros. Both are imposing, intense, moody, strong personalities. Both were named captains by GMs who thought thrusting them into a leadership role would bring out the best in them. Both were difficult to coach. Both were traded despite being considered potential cornerstone players around which you could build a team.

As we know, Lindros could be a hell of a player, but was a bad fit as a leader and never quite lived up to his potential. And he wore out his welcome in Philadelphia; he and GM Bobby Clarke both had personalities too big to fit in the same building. (There’s some sense that the Sutters in Calgary – also a couple of forceful personalities – came to the same conclusion with Phaneuf.)

That should be a warning to you, Brian Burke (yet another huge ego, by the way): That bluntness and frank talk from Phaneuf that led you to consider him captain material may be hard to take when the going gets tough – especially if Dion’s play hasn’t risen sufficiently to back up his mouth and his attitude.

Topics: Brian Burke, Calgary, Calgary Flames, Dion Phaneuf, Doug Gilmour, Eric Lindros, Flames, Ian White, Matt Stajan, Phaneuf, Ron Wilson, Toronto Maple Leafs

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