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Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)

DAVID SHOALTS

Dion Phaneuf a victim of perception Add to ...

Dion Phaneuf is both the latest example of the resentment toward the Toronto Maple Leafs by a large number of NHL players and a victim of perception.

The consequence is fairly trivial – he was voted in a poll of 161 of his peers by Sports Illustrated as the most overrated player in the league. But it sure set tongues wagging, with no shortage of opinions on either side of the issue.

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Leaf resentment is well-established among fans across the country, so it comes as no surprise they followed the lead of NHL players when presented with the same poll on Globesports.com. Look no further than the inclusion of Leaf defenceman Mike Komisarek in both lists of overrated players for proof of this.

Thanks to injuries, Komisarek has mostly been an anonymous player with the Leafs this season, or at least as anonymous as possible in this city. Last season, Komisarek slid down the depth chart and his media notices were hardly the stuff of overblown hagiographies.

When NHL players think about Toronto, they think a lot like hockey fans outside the Greater Toronto Area. They think about the all-consuming attention paid to a team that has not won a Stanley Cup going on 45 years and roll their eyes. They also smirk at all the media attention the team gets and talk about how tough it must be to play in such an atmosphere, in itself an overrated perception, which makes the Leafs one of the least-favoured destinations of free agents.

Phaneuf also wasn’t helped by his coach. Ron Wilson raised a lot of eyebrows a while back when he declared Phaneuf was the best defenceman in the NHL by a country mile. That went over like two-a-day practices in a lot of NHL dressing rooms.

Throw in the fact Phaneuf is not the most likeable guy on the ice – a safe bet is the 20 per cent of the 161 NHL voters who made him No. 1 on the overrated list were on the receiving end of a Phaneuf body check – and it’s no surprise to see his peers give him a figurative face-wash. Some say he is equally loveable off the ice, which may also have played into a few votes.

Hey, Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks made it on the overrated list just ahead of Komisarek at ninth. He’s just as abrasive as Phaneuf but no sensible hockey type would consider him overrated.

But the facts say otherwise. Phaneuf, 26, did go into decline after his first couple of years with the Calgary Flames when he posted as many as 60 points in a season. However, he is on the rise this season with 28 points in 42 games, which puts him sixth among NHL defenceman as of Thursday morning. While Phaneuf still tends to be an adventure defensively, his presence as a physical force for the Leafs is undeniable. The team’s record with him in the lineup is 67-51-16.

No, he is not ready to be a finalist for the Norris Trophy, the NHL’s award for the best defenceman. However, the sheer numbers of Leaf fans meant Phaneuf was voted into the NHL all-star game by the fans, which ostensibly makes him the second-best defenceman in the league at this point. But that is the fault of the NHL, which allows such nonsense by giving the fans a vote.

That does not mean Phaneuf is the most overrated player in the NHL. That dubious honour should go to the player whose reputation far outstrips his value. Alexander Ovechkin, the No. 2 finisher, who is in his second consecutive mediocre season, is a more sensible selection.

One thing that did not disappoint was the reaction of Leafs general manager Brian Burke. No one does high dudgeon better than Burke. In a couple of interviews Wednesday night, Burke pointed out the main reason Phaneuf was dissed was “people love to hate the Toronto Maple Leafs. They hate the fact we’re the centre of the hockey universe.”

That last sentence was particularly delicious. It was the perfect illustration why those NHL players love to dump on Toronto. The casual claim of hockey deity was sure to set the Toronto haters aflame all over again.

Burke reserved his best stuff for the players who voted for Phaneuf. He told the Toronto Star those players “can all go defecate in their chapeaus.”

In an appearance on Sportsnet Radio The Fan 590’s Prime Time Sports show, Burke said, “any player, any imbecile who voted on this poll, can fly to Ottawa to discuss it with [Phaneuf]at the all-star game.”

Anyone interested in the fortunes of the Leafs should have a listen to the entire Burke interview. He says he is looking to make a trade in advance of the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline because he wants the Leafs to make more than a token appearance in the playoffs. He said he would not hesitate to trade a first-round draft pick to do so, which is sure to provoke much discussion.

 
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