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The Hockey News

Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf returned to the ice Thursday night and if he was leading by example, the Buds are in more trouble than most had expected.

I suppose you have to give the defenseman a bit of slack, being his first game back and all, but it was Phaneuf’s leg, not his head that kept him out of the lineup, so his decision-making in a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia should have been better in his return.

There is no doubt Phaneuf brought a great element of leadership to the Leafs when he was acquired from Calgary last season, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s enough these days.

To wit, the Buffalo Sabres have gone the past seven games without the services of captain Craig Rivet. The veteran defenseman has been healthy, but the Sabres have decided to go into battle with a different top-six. Rivet had been out of the lineup with the flu and upon his return, he promptly went minus-2 in two consecutive games, a win over Los Angeles and a loss to Tampa Bay. In the past seven games with their captain as a healthy scratch, the Sabres have gone 4-2-1, a much better clip than they had been operating at all season.

Before the 2010-11 campaign began, I talked to numerous NHL personalities about what the ‘C’ meant these days and Rivet was one of the focuses. Teammate Jason Pominville told me that when Rivet arrived in 2008, he was a rarity on the team: a veteran willing to be vocal in the dressing room. The players took to him right away and voted him in as captain.

Two seasons later, I wonder about the optics of him being relegated to the sidelines. What does it mean for the leader of the team not to be on the bench during a game, imparting his wisdom to the youth or stabilizing a dicey situation? Maybe the Sabres are mature enough now that they can stand on their own without Rivet, but it doesn’t seem like a good situation to me.

The trend in the NHL recently has been for captains to be younger and often super-skilled. You’re never going to see Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews or Shea Weber benched. But based on the fact Toronto has eight legitimate NHL defensemen at its disposal right now, would it be crazy to think Phaneuf would be a healthy scratch one of these days if he continues to give the puck away or miss assignments?

Shawn Horcoff is the new captain in Edmonton, but before his knee injury, he was far from the best Oiler on the ice. Edmonton will still miss Horcoff – the Oilers don’t have enough depth to sit a veteran – but I wonder if Atlanta chose a better path when Andrew Ladd was named captain.

Despite the fact he’ll turn just 25 years old this weekend, Ladd has been one of the best Thrashers this season and brought two Stanley Cup rings with him to the ATL.

Some folks believe the captaincy doesn’t mean anything, that in this day and age, there is a “leadership group” within a dressing room that steers the team. But ask Vancouver fans how the captaincy controversy surrounding goalie Roberto Luongo affected both the team and the player last season and you’ll see the ‘C’ does still wield power.

Choosing the right person to wear it can be a tricky proposition.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

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