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Phaneuf serves as Leafs lightning rod; players support him but will management?

04/13/2015 05:45 EDT | Updated 06/19/2015 08:59 EDT
TORONTO - If it was Dion Phaneuf's last act as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the veteran defenceman went out on his shield.

As the Leafs cleaned out their lockers Monday to conclude a shocking season, Phaneuf made no excuses and took it on his ample chin.

"I feel this year personally I did not play well enough," he told a horseshoe-shape wall of reporters several layers deep. "My numbers I think reflect that, in the offensive side of the game I didn't produce where I expect to produce and I feel that that affected our team success. And I take responsibility for not playing to the level that I expect."

In truth, it is a speech every Leaf could make after a 30-44-8 season, good for 27th in the league.

With the team in a total rebuild after what forward Joffrey Lupul called a "wasted season," the question now is will the big blue-liner be back to help the Leafs climb back to respectability.

Having axed GM Dave Nonis and the entire coaching staff Sunday, as well as gutting the scouting department, team president Brendan Shanahan will now focus on pruning the playing roster, continuing an aggressive makeover that started prior to the transfer deadline.

Leadership is a key issue, with Phaneuf as captain front and centre.

While Shanahan said leadership comes from a group and not one person, he made no secret that it was lacking with the Leafs.

Asked about the future of Phaneuf and star forward Phil Kessel, Shanahan suggested every player's future is under review in the rebuild.

"After what's happened here over the last several years, I think it has to include everybody," he said.

Phaneuf, however, got one vote of confidence after another from his teammates Monday.

"A great guy," said Lupul, who counts Phaneuf as one of his best friends.

"Dion's been amazing ... Dion's been more than a hell of a captain," added goalie Jonathan Bernier. "He takes a lot of heat. He's good with young guys. He works hard every day. He's a true captain that's for sure."

"He's a great captain, he's a great leader, a good friend of mine," said defenceman Jake Gardiner.

The Leafs have a rich history of captains, with the likes of Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin wearing the C.

Phaneuf has captained the team with plenty of corporate dedication but little verve. When he puts on his baseball cap to answer questions after the game, the responses are polite but somewhat robotic.

"What he shows on camera is a lot different than the guy who he is, because he's a fun-loving guy," said Lupul, who like his captain said he did not play well enough this season. "He's always talking. He's the most vocal guy in the room. He's the leader of the team.

"He doesn't show that with the media, at all. So all you guys know is his boring interview," he added, drawing laughs.

It took the HBO series "24/7" to shed some light on the real Phaneuf, as cameras peeked at his well-stocked wardrobe complete with bow-ties and lifted the lid briefly on his marriage to actress Elisha Cuthbert.

Shanahan, a former captain himself with a trophy case that would fill your garage, went back to the issue of attitude repeatedly Monday, calling for a team with "greater character" and players who clearly want to be Leafs.

A little more sandpaper is also in order.

Toronto, once a prickly side full of consequences thanks to hard men like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, lacked passion this season with few instances of players standing up for each other.

In January, the other Leafs did nothing when Eric Staal tried to drill a slapshot through Phaneuf into the empty net. And the Leafs captain, who missed games after injuring his hand in a fight, found himself having to drop the gloves after other players came at him for delivering tough but clean checks.

Shanahan called for an attitude adjustment, saying fans can't understand "people that go out and give half-efforts and that don't appear to enjoy playing here."

Kessel may want to book his plane ticket now.

But Phaneuf, whose US$49-million contract extension runs through the 2020-21 season for his part, said all the right things Monday.

"I signed here for seven years and I want to remain a Toronto Maple Leaf. It's an honour to play in this city, for this organization and I expect to be back."

Still he acknowledged his future was in the hands of others.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

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