TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs sensed Dion Phaneuf’s absence in between periods of a recent loss to Chicago.
Their dressing room at United Center was unusually quiet in the intermissions. It was the kind of void Phaneuf usually filled in his six years as Leafs captain.
"That’s why we miss him a lot," Roman Polak said after a Wednesday practice in Toronto. "He knew exactly what to say at that time. We miss him a lot."
Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators last week in a nine-player blockbuster that left the Leafs without a captain for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign.
Mike Babcock, the Leafs head coach, opted not to fill the captaincy for the remainder of this season. Instead, he gave alternate letters to Polak, a veteran of 533 games, and Leo Komarov, among the more senior Leafs and currently the team’s leading scorer.
Babcock believes the duo have shouldered a greater load in the leadership, and will continue alongside previously designated alternate captains Matt Hunwick and Tyler Bozak.
"There’s no question we traded a good player," Babcock said. "We understand all that, we know what we did hockey-wise, but the people part of it, it’ll take a little bit."
It was the "people" aspect of the trade Polak felt was underappreciated by fans and media. He describes it as the sad part of the business.
"It’s tough," he said. "You’re not losing only a teammate you’re losing a friend, too. I think he was a great captain for this team and he was a great leader and he was vocal in the room so I think we kind of miss him. Because it’s just quiet.
"We try (to do) what he did but he was so good at it because he was a true leader and a great captain for this team. That’s why we miss him so much."
Players say the vibe is quieter without Phaneuf, who was named the 18th captain in team history after only 26 games with the club. Phaneuf was known for his vocal, energetic presence and described by Babcock as someone who set expectations for the group.
"When you have one leader like that who sets the example for everybody, everyone gravitates towards that," first-year centre Byron Froese said. "But now we have other guys stepping up and filling that role."
Phaneuf’s good-natured ribbing has been missed, too, Froese said.
Polak, a trade candidate himself, has seen the biggest jump in playing time since the trade. The 29-year-old has hovered around 23 minutes in four games since Phaneuf headed to Ottawa.
"Definitely weird," defenceman Jake Gardiner said of the environment without Phaneuf. "A lot more quiet around here. When you lose a captain and a guy like him — he’s so vocal — it’s a little different. We’re starting to adjust to it."