Captain in Waiting?
By the end of this season, barring injury, Dion Phaneuf will have 26 games as a Maple Leaf under his belt.
Whether that's a sufficient auction for Phaneuf to establish himself enough to become the club's next captain is up to Ron Wilson and Brian Burke.
It seems clear, however, that's what the Leaf braintrust are hoping for, that the 24-year-old Phaneuf is seizing the opportunity to quickly grab a leadership position within the dressing room to such an extent that Wilson and Burke would feel comfortable naming his as the club's first captain since Mats Sundin left at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season.
Wilson and Burke have repeatedly said there's no reason to name a new captain until there's a player worthy of the honor. Implicit in those comments was the suggestion that the players inherited by the two men when they arrived in Toronto six months apart were not worthy.
Well, most of those players are gone. In fact, only defenceman Tomas Kaberle remains from the pre-Wilson/Burke era — at least Kaberle's the only current member of the squad who had played NHL games for the Leafs before Wilson was hired in June, 2008.
The house-cleaning is essentially complete, although the futures of Kaberle (one year left on his contract), Nikolai Kulemin (a restricted free agent) and Mikhail Grabovski are uncertain, at best. Ditto for wildly overpaid rearguard Jeff Finger.
Clearly, the Leafs see Phaneuf as the logical candidate to give the team an official leader for the first time since Sundin left. He's been very solid since arriving nine games ago, and while the big blueliner is still looking for his first goal as a Leaf, he's made some big hits, been reliable defensively and shown an increasing willingness to jump into the rush.
How his personality will play out in the dressing room remains to be seen. Most describe him as gruff and blunt, and certainly vocal. After Nazem Kadri played a game recently for the Leafs as an emergency callup, the youngster was chatting with Wilson after the game when Phaneuf walked past, stopped, said something along the lines of "if you're going to be in camp next fall, you better show up in better shape" and marched on.
Talking that kind of talk could be a good thing for the Leafs and their captain-in-waiting as long as he can walk the walk on the ice and play the kind of hockey that allows others to follow.
If Phaneuf is introduced as the next captain of the team next fall — Sundin was 26 when he took the "C" for the 1997-98 season — he'll likely do so at the same time the club introduces a new set of uniforms.
The scuttlebutt in the industry is that the Leafs are seeking to alter their current home and away jerseys, adding a few more details, some piping and new personality to the uniforms that are among the dullest in the the league at the moment. The current uniforms were introduced after the lockout, while the club's best look remains it's third jersey, the predominantly white sweater with the vintage Leaf logo on the chest and blue shoulders.