Maybe I feel for and relate to Maple Leafs fans because I grew up a Boston Red Sox fan. Tortured and heart broken until 2004 when the ‘Curse Of The Bambino’ was finally broken and the Red Sox erased a 3-1 series deficit to beat their rival New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series before winning the World Series for the first time in 86 years. That could very well be it. But just as I did when the Boston Bruins prevented the Leafs from pulling off the same feat the Red Sox did against the Yankees in 2004, I immediately sympathized for all Leafs fans when their team completed another epic collapse, losing eight games straight down the stretch and missing the playoffs for the eighth time in the last nine seasons. In fact, truth be told, Red Sox fans had it easier in the sense that their team spread out their misery and such collapses. Toronto has fallen apart down the stretch twice in the last three seasons and in between those two collapses, they blew a three-goal lead in the final 11 minutes of Game 7 against Boston in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
I had the pleasure of covering that seven-game series last spring and I remember walking away from the dejected Leafs dressing room thinking of the 2003 and 2004 Red Sox teams. If you recall, the Red Sox lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the heavily favored Yankees in a similar heart-breaking fashion when Aaron (Bleeping if you’re a Red Sox fan!) Boone hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning off of Tim Wakefield to keep the curse alive. But there was a sense in the days after that amongst those with the team, those that covered the Red Sox and even fans that a rematch would happen the following season and the core of this Boston squad would be on a mission for redemption in 2004. Now the 2013 and 2014 Maple Leafs were not as loaded skill-wise as those Red Sox teams but I got a similar sense following Game 7 last April. Then when the Maple Leafs went out and acquired Jonathan Bernier, signed David Clarkson and David Bolland and got off to a roaring start this season, those same thoughts rand through my mind. But there was one difference that made me wonder if the Leafs could follow a similar path and even take the next step and make the second round of the playoffs this spring and that was their captain Dion Phaneuf.
During the 2004 season and even as the Red Sox battled the Yankees for first place and made it clear they were on a mission for redemption, whispers started build that one of the faces of the team and supposed leaders of the club house Nomar Garciaparra had become a distraction to the team and a source of negativity rather than unity and leadership. In fact, that season yours truly had the chance of covering some Red Sox games and let’s just say I got a first-hand taste of some of the stuff being bantered about on the superstar shortstop. Within three days of that experience, then Red Sox GM shocked Red Sox Nation and the baseball world when he dealt the five-time all star shortstop to the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline. The Red Sox acquired shortstop Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz from the Twins in the deal, with the Cubs sending shortstop Alex Gonzalez and minor leaguers Francis Beltran, a right-hander, and Brendan Harris, an infielder, to Montreal. Minnesota also received minor-league left-hander Justin Jones from the Cubs. In addition to Garciaparra, the Cubs also acquired minor-league outfielder Matt Murton and cash considerations from the Red Sox. Cabrera and Mientkiewicz ended up playing key roles in the Sox’ World Series run that fall with Mientkiewicz actually gloving the final out to clinch the World Series at first base.
Now there are plenty of differences between that scenario that unfolded in Boston that season and that of the Maple Leafs right now. For one, the Leafs didn’t follow the Sox’s path this past season, not even making the playoffs and seemingly taking a step backwards instead. The future of the players, coach and general manager are all uncertain and on Friday the Maple Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan as President and Alternate Governor. Shanahan will oversee all team operations for the 97-year old franchise and will begin his new role immediately. The general feeling in Toronto and around the league is that major changes are abound and regardless of what changes Shanahan makes regarding GM Dave Nonis and head coach Dave Nonis, he may be best suited to instruct Nonis or whomever his GM ends up being to do whatever it takes to trade the team captain Phaneuf.
Just as there were on Garciaparra during the first half of that 2004 season, there have been plenty of whispers and question marks on the three-time all star defenseman, not just on his ability to be a top pairing defenseman but also on his character and being a captain. Phaneuf confirmed the character suspicions during the Leafs’ stretch-run collapse this season when he refused to face the media after a 5-3 loss to the Blues March 25 in which his play arguably led to two St. Louis goals. This was one of multiple examples that he is not the leader the Leafs entrusted him to be when they named him captain and then just prior to the Winter Classic this season, signed the 29 year-old rear guard to a seven-year contract extension on New Year’s Eve. One Leafs source recently told Murph’s Musings that he is not looked upon as a leader within the dressing room and like Garciaparra in 2004, can sometimes be a “distraction”.
Unfortunately for the Leafs unlike major league baseball, there is a salary cap in the NHL and they will find it very difficult to unload his new seven-year contract which kicks in next season with a $7 million annual cap hit. But with the ability to now retain some of that cap hit and with Phaneuf’s statistical and decent overall value as a player eating up minutes and bringing a physical presence, maybe some cap floor teams like the Islanders, Avalanche or the Oilers. Maybe even his former team the Flames — who now have the man who as former GM of the Leafs acquired Phaneuf from Calgary, as their President of Hockey Operations & Acting General Manager — would consider reacquiring Phaneuf? But one thing appears to be clear in Toronto and it’s not simply players underachieving or coaches and management failing at there respective jobs, it’s a lack of chemistry and leadership. That starts with the captain and regardless of Phaneuf’s star power, if the Leafs are to get back on the path to redemption and eventually breaking what will now be a 48-year Stanley Cup drought like the Red Sox did with theirs in 2004, they need to find a way to unload Phaneuf as Boston did with Garciaparra and finally reward a nation of deprived Maple Leafs fans.