If the Toronto Maple Leafs defended their goalies on the ice the way they defend their captain in the dressing room, the team would win the Stanley Cup without ever giving up a goal.
Defenceman and captain Dion Phaneuf, identified as the most overrated NHL player in a Sports Illustrated poll of 161 players, is reviled, teammates say, because he’s tough to play against. Rather than being overrated, Phaneuf is much closer to being the best defenceman in the league – as head coach Ron Wilson described him earlier this season.
“Dion’s one of the top guys in the league this year,” said Mike Komisarek, who was 10th in the overrated list. “I’m not sure how many guys answered that poll but I’m sure some of them were guys he rocked. He’s not only the top guy on our team but one of the top guys in the league.”
The Leafs closed ranks in solidarity around Phaneuf on Thursday after practice where they prepared for a rematch Friday with the Buffalo Sabres. Toronto ran its undefeated string in 2012 to four successive games with a 2-0 shutout of Buffalo last Tuesday.
“Obviously, Dion’s not a guy who’s liked too well. He’ll mix it up with someone after a whistle. When [players]get asked a question like that, they answer with the name of the guy they least like to play against,” Joffrey Lupul said.
Phaneuf is better known his shot from the point – he has five power-play goals – than for his fighting. Just as well, since another poll that was published Thursday – this one by newspaper USA Today – said that fighting in the NHL had decreased by about a quarter this season.
Lupul and fellow Leafs forward Phil Kessel were among 36 players added to the all-star lineup by the league’s hockey operations department Thursday. The Leafs will be joined at the game in Ottawa this month by Phaneuf, who was already voted in by fans.
“I won’t lose any sleep over it,” Phaneuf said of the SI poll of players. “The way we play as a team is what concerns me most. … What matters to me is how I’m perceived in this room and by the players.”
Leafs general manager Brian Burke said on a radio broadcast that people who feel Phaneuf is overrated “can defecate in their chapeaux. … Any imbecile who voted in this poll can fly to Ottawa to discuss this with him at the all-star game.”
Phaneuf is sixth among defencemen scoring leaders with seven goals and 21 assists for 28 points. He’s a plus-2 players on a team that is a cumulative plus-4 and has – until this week – had a big question mark over the goal.
“It’s nice to have a GM like Burke, who sticks up for his players. We enjoy working for him.” Phaneuf said.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson has little respect for the poll and said Phaneuf belongs on the all-star squad.
“There were no charity picks on the all-star selection. It’s not like we’re in a boat having a bad season and we have to send someone,” Wilson said. Kessel “may have been the last man picked in the all-star team selection last year – but think of this: He was there as an all-star. Most of the players who voted in the poll were probably not.
“As for the poll, is it really serious? I saw a list of 15 guys and I’d take any one of them on my team. I think most people would.”