THIRD MAN IN: Toronto Loud Mouth Needs to Walk the Walk

Behind the Bench/Sports by

Dion Phaneuf is a loud guy. You can have endless debates about his abilities, about his paycheque, or about his girlfriend (notorious puck bunny Elisha Cuthbert), but there’s no debating his mouth. And while his brashness may have excited the Toronto Maple Leafs enough for them to name him captain, it has also gotten him into a lot of trouble. I am almost certain that a statement he made last week in particular will come back to haunt him: “It’s definitely a playoff team. Our goal going into the start of this year is to make the playoffs,” he said. “Anything short of that is unacceptable.”?

For a team that ranked 29th out of 30 NHL teams last season, that would be quite an accomplishment. While the Leafs’ payroll along the blue line resembles that of a playoff entente, there were many nagging questions as the Leafs entered into camp last week. Who will the scorers be, aside from Phil Kessel? Will the blue line hold up or crumble? And does J.S Giguere still have what it takes to be a starting goaltender? Unless there’s some sort of miracle, Phaneuf will have to accept the unacceptable at the end of the year.

But Phaneuf wasn’t thinking of a miracle when he made his statement; he was just being himself. And that’s his problem. He is too abrasive and too reckless to be a captain. Even Mark Messier, the man who made the famous guarantee in the ’94 Finals, couldn’t follow through on his promise to lead the 2000 Rangers to the playoffs.

As a captain, Phaneuf has to be accountable to both his teammates and the legions of Leaf fans who are hanging on his every word. But these comments have been made and he has to move on. He needs to focus on playing like the seven-million-dollar defenceman that he is. That means avoiding 25-game goalless droughts when his offensive game is supposed to be among the NHL’s elite. It also means restraining himself from that big hit if it will put him out of position.

While I may not agree with his captaincy, I can appreciate what a superstar presence on such a young team means. Maybe the kids listened and will continue to listen to him because of his Norris nomination, because of his experience, or because they just found him agreeable (which I doubt). Whatever the reason, Dion has to understand that this is his team. No matter how hard things get from now on, he has to suck it up, be the big guy, and stop being the locker-room cancer he was rumoured to be in Calgary. A Phaneuf who cherishes his status is valuable to his team; one who doesn’t is just another overpaid, overrated Leafs superstar.

Which brings me back to my point: Dion Phaneuf is a loud guy. Whether that will be Dion the game-breaker or Dion the cheap talker, is up to him.