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Phaneuf speaks: Who’s listening?

I remember back in the early-to-mid-1970s, Leaf captain Dave Keon—not one generally prone to making brash or bold public statements, much less predications—spoke with certainty one day at the outset of training camp.

In effect, he said the Leafs had one of the best teams that they had had in all his years in the organization. That was saying something, given that the team had won four Cups in the 1960s.

I’m trying to recall the precise year—I think it was just before the 1974-’75 season, which would turn out to be Keon’s 15th and final season in Toronto. They had just acquired “Cowboy” Bill Flett from the Cup champion Flyers and rugged scoring winger Gary Sabourin from the St. Louis Blues, which provided hope.

With Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and other solid youngsters in place, the prediction seemed bold, but not outlandish.

In the end, the Leafs crawled into the playoffs by the slimmest of margins. While they upset the highly-seeded Bob Pulford-coached LA Kings in the “preliminary” playoff round, they were then hammered by the Flyers in four straight.

This is all by way of saying that training camp optimism is all well and good—and maybe even necessary when you are the leader of the band. But it does put an “X” on your chest.

So when new Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf says the Leafs are without question a "playoff team" (not a playoff “contender”—words do matter…) and that not making the playoffs is “unacceptable”, well, let the fun begin.

Now, we can debate both sides of this coin. You certainly want your presumptive leader to tell it straight, and have—as well as inspire— real confidence.

And after all, this organization has not seen the playoffs since before it was decided to “change the game” after the Cup-killing lockout, and made it more about speed and skill than hooking and holding.

But I often get uncomfortable when I hear these kinds of proclamations. Is Dion whistling in the dark, hoping his teammates will believe him?

Or does he really sense something has changed in Leafland?

Maybe I’m just sensitive to – or bemused by—the seeming overuse of the word unacceptable in modern sports parlance. I say that because, hey, how many times have we heard players say after a game, “The way we played tonight was unacceptable”.

In such instances, my thought is usually...really? Would it not have been more useful for the players to ensure that they did not end up feeling that way by having worked their tail off much earlier in the evening— say, before the first puck dropped?

Proclaiming it after the fact leaves me, well, mostly agitated, as in, if you knew it wasn’t “acceptable”, why didn’t you figure that out a lot sooner, and do something about it? A game lasts 60 minutes, after all.

So Phaneuf has said it out loud, and importantly, before the fact. He has certainly (not surprisingly) set the bar higher than all those “analysts” who clearly are seeing a very different picture evolving in Toronto. But that’s OK. The critics are paid to analyze—and who really cares what any of us (beat writers, columnists, experts, fans, bloggers) says in terms of a so-called forecast, anyway?

Predictions of any kind—NCAA football, NFL football, those made before the major league baseball season, whatever, don’t mean a thing. (Many of the college football “forecasts” have already gone out the window, and the season just started…) But space needs to be filled on TV, radio and print, so everyone has to make a “prediction”.

Oh well.

If “analysts” unanimously think the Leafs will or won’t make the playoffs means precious little. What Phaneuf says may be important. What he truly feels is likely way more important.

Most important is how every guy on the team will bring it when the puck drops for real, starting in October.

Like it or not, he has identified the rather large gorilla that has been parked in the room for years. This is a team that has terribly under-achieved for years. Blame the different GM’s. Blame all the different coaches. Blame the players.

But regardless of recent history, whatever the expectations for this year's team were yesterday, they are a bit different now (for some fans, at least) because the captain has spoken.

Everyone in the organization now has to step up. Wayne Gretzky said years ago: “You know what beats hard work? Hard work—and talent”.

Well, the Leafs have what they have in terms of talent, but I’m still of the view that if you work harder than the guy opposite you, more often than not, you’ll win.

Yes, on occasion, a team will outwork and “out-talent” you. But if you play your guts out all the time, you’ll win more than you lose.  And in today’s NHL, that may be enough to get you into the playoffs.

Phaneuf says the Leafs have the talent. I’ll pass for now on that one. But any team can decide that they will out-work everyone else. And that can’t be achieved with words, only with consistent maximum effort.

And that’s the only way this team will make the playoffs.


  1. Something changed as soon as March 2010 and the Leafs played the remaining 2 months of the season in 5th or 6th for those 2 months of play. Too little - too late? Of course but OMG what a change! That also did not include the off - Season acquisitions. Does he sense something? You bet! He was there when things turned the corner and ALL DIE HARD FANS were paying attention as well. The bashers, wagon jumpers and frequent flyers between Team favorites can say what ever they want. The ones who were paying attention know that change has come to this team before the off-season, and it only gained momentum on the off-season. The "Blue and White Phoenix" is rising!
    Brenda :)

  2. Not going on a limb and saying they'll make the playoffs, but logic dictates that at least on paper they should improve on last year - by how much is to be determined. I don't think anyone will disagree that the Goalie and Defence positions are stronger than last year, and that should reflect in fewer goals against. Most critics are saying that the offense will be about the same as last year. If that's true, then their fate this season will be dictated by how much they can improve on the defensive end - if the goal total improves, it's a bonus and could lead to them squeeking in as an 8th seed. Just my $0.02.

  3. Last year very much reminded of the '91 '92 Leafs, they were atrocious to begin the year, played ok to bad in the middle of the year a big trade with Calgary and played really well afterwards. In fact I checked the game by game records of the Leafs in '91-'92 and '09-'10 versions of this team and it is astonishingly similar. Here's to next year being like '92-'93!