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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)

Hockey Maple Leafs

Dion Phaneuf becomes a hit by taking fewer of them Add to ...

In 2008, Ron Wilson and Dion Phaneuf met in the playoffs for the first and only time.

At that point, Wilson was behind the bench of one of the best teams in the league, the San Jose Sharks, who had racked up an 108-point season that still stands as his best.

Phaneuf was in his Calgary Flames heyday, coming off a 60-point season in which he finished as the runner-up for the Norris Trophy, at 23 years old, to Nick Lidstrom.

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It was mostly downhill from there for both.

After his team eliminated the Flames in seven games, Wilson was fired a few weeks later when the Sharks bowed out in Round 2.

Phaneuf’s struggles in Calgary, meanwhile, started in earnest in that series, beginning a stretch of poor play that ultimately led to the Flames dealing him for little in return.

More than three years after that postseason meeting, Wilson and Phaneuf are together again, as coach and captain of a Toronto Maple Leafs team that is sitting sixth in the Eastern Conference.

A considerable factor in the Leafs’ early success has been Phaneuf’s play, as the big defenceman from Edmonton is suddenly playing a far more well-rounded game than ever before.

Asked Thursday what had changed, Wilson opened up, revealing that he wasn’t all that impressed with how his captain used to play.

“In San Jose, we used to kind of take advantage when Dion was on the ice,” Wilson said. “We scored a lot of goals when he was on the ice.

“He got a lot of hits, but we scored a lot of goals. Hits don’t add up to anything in the standings.”

Phaneuf was an offensive force in that 2008 playoff series, with three goals and four assists in the seven games while logging a team-high 27 minutes a game.

The problem was he was also on the ice for more than a goal against each game, ultimately finishing minus-2 in the deciding game and the series as some of the holes in his defensive play came through.

A couple of years later, those deficiencies suddenly became Wilson’s problem when the Leafs acquired Phaneuf in a massive seven-player deal in January, 2010.

The list of things he needed to improve, according to his new coach, included not defending well using his stick, poor positioning and following the puck too often.

“He used to, wherever you’d pass the puck, if he didn’t get a hit, he’d chase the puck,” Wilson recalled. “We thought as long as you had your head up, you could entice him into running around a little bit.

“Especially in the neutral zone. He was always looking for a hit.”

While Phaneuf’s improvement in Toronto wasn’t immediate, slowly but surely he has got better in his own end. And, after 120 games as a Leaf, the coaching staff relies on him to kill penalties and face opponents’ top lines every night.

His offensive contributions have also begun to return, as he sits third in team scoring behind Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul entering Friday’s game against the Washington Capitals.

Since the all-star break last season, Phaneuf has produced at a 59-point pace – on par with his best season with the Flames – in part because he passes more and misses the net less than before.

And despite not always landing the big hits he originally became known for, he has quietly been one of Toronto’s better players many nights.

Wilson said he sees Phaneuf’s improvement as part of the evolution of a young player, someone who simply needed a little tutoring in order to improve his game.

“It’s his positioning and patience with his physical play that have enabled him to do a better job defensively,” Wilson said. “I think a lot of it has to do with what we told him. Our likes and dislikes.

“Most nights, it’s who scores the most goals wins the game, not who has the most hits. Trying to get Dion to understand that has been a bit of a process.”

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