The simplest way to determine a player's value to his team is to imagine the team without him.
Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are two of the most important players on the Toronto Maple Leafs team, but who is more important: the sniper or the captain?
Let us begin by briefly examining Kessel's role on the team.
The 24-year-old is currently the only pure sniper with the Leafs. Although he has gotten better at using his teammates, Kessel is still primarily a "shoot first, ask questions later" type of player.
He played all 82 games in the 2011-12 season and posted 82 points, including 37 goals.
Without Kessel in the lineup, few of those points would be replaced.
There are only two proven top-three forwards in the Leaf organization: Kessel and linemate Joffrey Lupul.
Hypothetically, if half of that dynamic duo were to miss the 2012-13 season for whatever reason, the Leafs would have another Bozakian situation on their hands.
In other words, an unproven and inexperienced youngster would be thrust into a role for which he'd be grossly unprepared. The responsibility and pressure would be overwhelming and his end-of-year numbers would be terrible.
Until Leafs GM Brian Burke signs a big fish free agent or trades for a star forward, Phil Kessel should be considered untouchable and irreplaceable.
This brings us to Dion Phaneuf, the captain.
The jury is still out as to whether or not the 27-year-old defenseman is doing a good enough job as captain so far.
Nobody on the outside can know for sure what goes on in the locker room, but Phaneuf seems to be well-liked and well-respected by his teammates.
If he has been doing a decent job as a leader on the team so far, he would undoubtedly do better if he were surrounded with stronger veteran voices.
After all, it's hard to take a so-called leader seriously if he's yelling at you from the press box half the time.
This writer believes a certain other Leaf defenseman, someone who brings more character, increased physicality and better fighting ability, would make a better captain for the team someday, but we'll leave that for another time.
In terms of point production, Phaneuf led all Leaf defensemen last year with 44 points, 12 of them goals.
He is an offensive defenseman who enjoys joining (or leading) the rush and often creates something out of nothing for his team.
Although he led the team's blueliners in scoring, his point production is replaceable.
Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles are both offensive defensemen like Phaneuf. The former is about to participate in the Calder Cup Finals with the Toronto Marlies while the latter received a vote of confidence from management in the form of a four-year, $15.5 million contract extension which was signed back in January.
Both are ready to take on increased responsibility with the Leafs in the upcoming season and hypothetically, with Phaneuf gone, they could make up a good chunk of his lost points between just the two of them.
His departure would also open up more playing time for Cody Franson, a player who many felt was treated unfairly for most of last season.
In addition, if Jesse Blacker makes the team out of training camp and if soon-to-be free agent Justin Schultz signs with the Leafs over the summer, the team would have two additional offensive defensemen in their ranks.
With regards to point production, Phaneuf's loss might hurt, but it definitely wouldn't cripple the team like the absence of Kessel would. It's entirely possible his points wouldn't be missed at all.
In fact, it's possible his leadership wouldn't be missed all that much either.
Guys like Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski and John-Michael Liles are looked up to by the team's younger players. They could do leadership by committee in Phaneuf's absence.
Or, if you're in the mood for an experiment, slap the "C" on one of them. It wouldn't be any more impulsive than Burke's decision to slap the letter on Phaneuf mere months after he was traded from Calgary.
That's not to say that Phaneuf is doing a bad job. None of this was meant as criticism towards him or anyone else in the organization.
It is interesting though, that when we take a step back to look at the players on the team, we find out the captain isn't the most important player.
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