The evolution of Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf into a more complete player is a fascinating case study for anyone who watched him in his younger days with the Calgary Flames.
Once upon a time, Phaneuf was a rookie sensation for Flames, scoring 20 goals in his first NHL season, and pulverizing opponents with punishing, Scott Stevens-like hits. He was the original Pierre McGuire ‘monster’ – someone who played big minutes right from the get-go, an eye-catching, high-risk high-reward brand of hockey.
Apart from McGuire, no one appreciated Phaneuf’s contributions more than Mike Keenan did in the 2007-08 season, a year in which Phaneuf scored 60 points, piled up 182 penalty minutes and was a massive presence on a Flames’ team that went out in seven hard games to the San Jose Sharks in the opening playoff round. Phaneuf won them some games and lost them others and eventually, after Keenan’s departure, he and his $6.5-million annual contract were deemed expendable – controversially traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in one of the more one-sided deals that general manager Brian Burke pulled off when he was running that organization.
Burke runs Calgary now, but he was nowhere in sight Wednesday night, when Toronto took on the Flames. But Phaneuf was front and centre on another roller coaster night for a Leaf team that is rarely predictable but always fun to watch.
Whatever their shortcomings may be, the Leafs are winning and putting on a show while they’re doing it, which are the prime directives in the entertainment business. And Phaneuf is a big part of what’s going right, by playing a far quieter brand of hockey than he once did. This, by the way, is meant as a compliment. It sometimes takes years for players and especially for defencemen to absorb the lesson – that less can sometimes be more.
When asked, Phaneuf will tell you, in his own mind, the biggest improvements in his game have come in his own end.
“I’m a lot more responsible there,” he said, “and that’s a learning curve that a lot of young D-men have when they come in. When you first start as a young age, you’re usually protected by different match-ups. The coaching staff usually puts you out there against the guys that they want to match you up against.
“As you get older and as you gain more experience, you’re playing against better players. I feel as I’ve grown in my role and in the way I play the game defensively.”
As a rookie, Phaneuf played a lot with the veteran Roman Hamrlik and they were a good pair together. Over time, the Flames invested a lot of dollars into their defence corps – signing Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr and then adding Jay Bouwmeester as a free agent. Eventually something had to give ... and all three have now moved on.
Soon, Phaneuf will be in the negotiating stages again – with an expiring contract, he will be an unrestricted free agent once the season ends. It will likely cost the Leafs in the $7-million range on a term of seven years to get him signed. Phaneuf earned top dollar from Calgary because he scored 54 goals in his first three years in the league, but if he gets the sort of long-term extension the Leafs almost certainly have to give him, it will because he’s become a more responsible penalty killer, with better stick positioning, and a greater sense of how to front opposing forwards in an era where the open-ice body check is on the endangered species list.
Most important, it looks as though Leafs coach Randy Carlyle trusts Phaneuf more. Phaneuf is averaging about 24 minutes a night, a little less than usual, which seems to be a good number for him.
“Different nights you’re going to play different amount of minutes,” Phaneuf said. “Whenever you’re asked to go, you go and do your job. Some nights, it’s more. Some nights, it’s less. The biggest thing is, as a group, we’ve done a good job of working together. It’s all about getting wins – whether you’re playing 25 or 27.
“Everyone has their opinion and different take on every issue of the game – whether it’s the offensive side of your game or the defensive side of your game. I feel good about where my game is at personally and where our team game is at, more importantly.”
Phaneuf played for years in Calgary with Jarome Iginla, who was signed to five-year extensions for $7-million a year because this is where he wanted to be. Phaneuf looks happy playing in Toronto and being captain of the Leafs. For their part, the Leafs would be hard-pressed to replace Phaneuf’s minutes if he were to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent, given how few high-end defencemen ever get there.
He likes them and they need him and that’s usually a formula for a successful contract conclusion. Maybe investing $15-million in two players – Phaneuf and the recently extended Phil Kessel – doesn’t make sense when the NHL salary cap is at $64.5-million, but since most GMs believe it will go north of $75-million within the next two to three years, the Leafs can probably make the dollars work. In the meantime, it probably heartens general manager Dave Nonis to know that Phaneuf likes his day job a lot.
“It’s a real fun team to be a part of,” he said. “It’s a young exciting team. We’ve played well here early. We’ve done a lot of real good things here the last year and a half. Obviously, with the additions we’ve made over the summer, the guys that have come in have really helped our team. Depth is a big thing in the NHL. I think you see that year in and year out. The teams that have success have depth.
“I feel our team is going in the right direction.”
Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek
Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey