Since they were paired by the dearly departed Brian Burke, the primary question around the Toronto Maple Leafs has never strayed too far from this:
Can a team with Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel as its cornerstones win a Stanley Cup?
I think we can all now agree that the answer is a resounding, emphatic, “no.”
The good news is that Leafs president Brendan Shanahan feels the same way. Relief is in sight.
That it was hard to ever quite imagine a team with Phaneuf as its No.1 defenceman and Kessel as the lynchpin up front hoisting the Cup at the ACC, has been the fundamental source of angst for fans for about five years now.
Each are capable players in their own way, but each invited all kinds of debate. Neither inspired consensus.
On Monday the two highest paid and longest tenured – or at least with the longest contractual commitments – spoke after what should be their final season in Toronto and were in agreement that neither of them were good enough to stop this train from wrecking.
“I feel that this year, personally, I didn’t play well enough. My numbers reflect that on the offensive side of the game,” said Phaneuf, who mustered just three goals and 26 assists on the year, the lowest totals in an 82-game season in his career, and worth noting given the hours of time he occupied on the Leafs power play.
“I didn’t produce where I expect to produce and that affected team success. I accept responsibility for not playing to the level that I expect.”
Said Kessel, whose 25 goals and 61 points were steep drops from the 82 and 80 points he’d put up in his last two full seasons, and who logged a career-worst -34, tying him with linemate Tyler Bozak for the second-worst total in the league.
“I didn’t have the best year, right? And I always take the blame. When you don’t perform to your standards you’re disappointed … I didn’t get it done. I’m disappointed and I expect more from myself.”
Their production was just one factor. Listening to the likes of Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak – veterans acquired last season to anchor the club’s leadership structure – the Leafs season sounded like a nightmare from which there was no awakening.
“Things got negative [and] you get in that mood and confidence is a big part of the game,” said Robidas in reference to the Leafs 9-28-5 slide after Randy Carlyle was fired. “ … You look at Calgary, they find a way, they’re a confident group. That’s what’s going on with Ottawa right now. They’re hot and they can’t lose a game right now. But it can go the other way. When you start losing and things go bad it’s like: ‘Can we win a game?”
This group was ill-prepared to change the direction when things started going south.
“It’s hard to play here, you know,” said Polak as he looked out on a dressing room that had about three media members for every player on the Leafs roster. “I can see it today. There is pressure from the media. I’ve never seen so many guys in the dressing room like that and everyone is different. Some guys don’t mind it … other guys..”
Other guys can’t handle the heat.
While winning and losing is a team effort, the Leafs lack of success and tendency to fold at key moments – three second-half fades in the past three 82-game seasons and the Game 7 meltdown that ended the lockout shortened season two years ago – has always disproportionally fallen at the skates of their two highest profile players.
Even when Phaneuf and Kessel had good years individually, that the team still somehow wilted seemed to be telling a different story about what they each brought to the table.
It’s subjective stuff, but for all of Brendan Shanahan’s openness to the emerging use of data to minimize unmoored opinions when it comes to player evaluation, it sure sounded like he’s seen enough in his one year on the job to judge his two most expensive players lacking in traits that will always be hard to measure.
“We need a team with greater character,” he said, while dismissing the notion that anything about playing in hockey’s biggest market was a worthy excuse for why winning here was more difficult than anywhere else.
“We need people that represent this city and represent this team as it deserves. We have an incredibly loyal and resilient fan base and we need to have an incredibly resilient group of players that love to play in Toronto.”
So, Phil, Dion and the current leadership group are they part of the future?
“The obvious answer [is no]. They know it, we know it, everyone here knows it,” said Shanahan. “The job didn’t get done. They’re professionals, I’m not here to pile on top of them; it’s been a difficult season for them. But they understand that yesterday was just the beginning. There will be changes.”
Neither Phaneuf or Kessel begged to be free – each of them pledged their allegiance to the Leaf flag. But given that each of them have no-movement clauses in their contracts, which have six and seven years left to run respectively, they have to want to leave and each of them suggested that if approached about it, they’d listen.
“I signed here to be a Toronto Maple Leaf,” said Phaneuf. “That can change, I understand the business, I’ve been around long enough. There’s been lots of talk, lots of speculation but right now I’m focused on being a Toronto Maple Leaf. If that comes up this summer, I’ll deal with that then, but right now I’m a Toronto Maple Leaf.”
Emphasis on ‘right now.’
And Kessel? Would he be open to being moved?
“I’ll have to see when the time comes,” he said. “You never know how it shakes out, but I want to be here. I love playing in Toronto.”
The time is going to be coming soon. This is how it’s going to shake out: Phil and Dion may love playing in Toronto, but their boss doesn’t feel the same way.
Their five-year run is coming to a close and we can all agree, they weren’t good enough for the job at hand.