Few would argue that the Bruins have not been the class of the Eastern Conference for the past several years. They have “only” one Cup on their recent resume, but they have been right there as a serious contender year in and year out.
Even fewer would argue that the lynchpin—the guy who makes the Bruins go—has been stalwart defenseman Zdeno Chara. I don’t need to list the Bruin captain’s attributes here. But along with Tim Thomas, he was a crucial factor in the Cup victory, and has been a true shutdown defenseman for ages on the B’s blueline.
This week, Chara suffered an injury that will take him out of the Boston lineup until sometime in December. The Bruins will no doubt survive (they certainly did against the Leafs Saturday night at the ACC), but not without some off nights along the way. They have a young Doug Hamilton emerging as a minute-eating rearguard and Seidenberg, Krug and McQuaid remain reliable defensemen. But while guys may step up their game, it’s pretty much impossible to really replace a player like Chara. There just isn’t anyone out there quite like him.
This got me thinking about a column a wrote here almost a year ago. I wondered aloud who the one player was that the Leafs could not do without, and my conclusion, as I recall, was that it was our own captain, Dion Phaneuf.
I saw Phaneuf as someone who logged huge minutes, played against the other team’s top line every night and generally gave his best effort most nights. Given a generally uncertain defense brigade, and a then untested rookie in Morgan Rielly, he seemed, to me at least, to be indispensible.
Arguably, other Leafs like Kessel and Bernier could certainly have been in that discussion, but Phaneuf struck me as the guy we really could not replace for any length of time.
Fast forward to the 2014-’15 season and I now wonder: are we—and the Maple Leafs—still in the same boat? Is Phaneuf still our (arguably) most indispensible player?
I’m sure the debate will continue in Leafworld as to whether Phaneuf is the impact player people like me claimed he was. Is a true top-pairing guy? Is he a leader? Is his play on the decline, or soon to be?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but while Phaneuf remains an important figure in the Leaf lineup and along our back line, I am asking myself if we are on the cusp on a new leaf being turned, as it were, on the Maple Leaf blueline.
Robidas is coming off serious injuries, and at 37, is unlikely to be a long-term contributor for Toronto. He may help this year and/or next, but we’ll see. After that, though, things get kind of interesting.
Most Leaf supporters would contend that Rielly has ‘star’ written all over him. Right now his ceiling looks very, very high. Will he become an all-around defenseman who consistently tilts the play in his side’s favour? Maybe.
Gardiner remains a puzzle (we saw the concerning aspects in the third period Saturday night against the Bruins): a talented guy, but one who, while gifted, may not have developed quite the way Carlyle and the brass would have liked. Two years ago I doubted the Leafs would ever consider trading him. Now…
Young Percy has opened my eyes and while there is no guarantee he will blossom the way some now envision in light of his surprising early-season performance, he, too, will no doubt anchor the defense for years to come. With Franson and Polak already on the roster and Finn, Granberg and Nillson likely capable of NHL playing time (and maybe more than that) before long, it does trigger a question: could the Leafs now survive if Phaneuf were out for an extended period?
To extend the thought, is the captain now replaceable enough that, if he was traded for a solid return, others would indeed pick up the slack?
Right now, I don’t see a number-one defenseman on the Leaf roster. Rielly may well become that some day, and I don’t doubt that Gardiner could play major minutes, but he would have to become a much better player around his own net. Neither, though, could fairly be categorized right now as a first-pairing, shutdown D-man.
So while I believe the Leafs could handle Phaneuf’s absence for a period of time, I still think they would sorely miss his presence over time. He’s not Chara, but he competes and handles his role as the Leaf top guy. He is a generally capable defender and still contributes offensively.
And when the coach looks down the bench, Phaneuf is still the guy he taps on the shoulder more than anyone else, night in and night out.
The Leafs are, hopefully, building toward a day when they can thrive without the individual who is still their best defenseman—because they have so much proven depth and experience that he no longer will have to play that “indispensible” role.
But for now, there is still a “Dion dependency”, and it may be that way for a while, still.