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Dion Phaneuf skates with the puck in his Ottawa Senators debut, while chased by Detroit Red Wings’ Justin Abdelkader at Joe Louis Arena, on Feb. 10. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)
Dion Phaneuf skates with the puck in his Ottawa Senators debut, while chased by Detroit Red Wings’ Justin Abdelkader at Joe Louis Arena, on Feb. 10. (Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports)

Leafs’ Rielly, Babcock praise Phaneuf’s evolving leadership qualities Add to ...

Promising young defenceman Morgan Rielly was preparing for his second season with the Toronto Maple Leafs when team captain Dion Phaneuf offered some advice.

During a conversation over dinner one night, Phaneuf told Rielly to ignore any talk from the media and fans that a sophomore slump was inevitable. He recounted his own experience with the Calgary Flames, when he followed up a Calder Trophy-nominated rookie season with 17 goals and 50 points.

Dion Phaneuf traded to Sens: A look at his hockey career in numbers (CP Video)

Different perhaps from public perception, Phaneuf evolved into a well-respected leader during a six-year run in Toronto and his wisdom made an impression on Rielly.

It’s that kind of leadership the Ottawa Senators hope Phaneuf can bring to their inexperienced defence. Senators general manager Bryan Murray said leadership and experience were crucial factors in the nine-player trade that landed Phaneuf in the nation’s capital earlier this week.

Murray hopes Phaneuf will be a presence for his young stable of defencemen, including 22-year-old Cody Ceci, Phaneuf’s new partner on the blue line.

“He does a little bit of everything, I think,” Rielly said of Phaneuf’s leadership skills. “He wants to make everyone comfortable, try to make sure everybody knows what’s going on, take care of guys.”

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock often raved about that ability.

“What I like about Dion is Dion looks after our kids real good,” Babcock said at one point. “From the Christmas party to when they’re supposed to show up to when they’re allowed to leave to if you don’t compete hard enough on the ice, if you don’t compete hard enough in the gym. When those guys get drifting mentally he keeps them in line.”

Thrust into a previously vacant Toronto captaincy after just 26 games with the club, Phaneuf grew admittedly more comfortable with the role as time wore on. He learned to temper a once overly enthusiastic presence, leading with a work ethic that teammates and coaches, past and present, said was never in question.

“I’ve learned lots,” he said earlier this year.

Those lessons started well before he became a Leaf. Phaneuf said he learned to be a professional from Bryan Marchment, among others, while the two were briefly teammates in Calgary. Practice habits, off-ice habits, workout habits, Marchment showed him the way in his rookie NHL season.

“There were lots of older guys there that really helped me in learning how to train and how to be professional and that’s something I’ve always tried to continue to help with because I think it’s an important part of it,” Phaneuf said.

What started as a mentorship between him and Rielly eventually became just a friendship.

The two went out to dinner and hit the odd Toronto Raptors game. Rielly even went to Phaneuf’s off-season home in Prince Edward Island last summer.

When the two talked, before the trade that is, it wasn’t always about hockey.

“It’s just a friendship now,” Rielly said. “He wanted me to be a good player and he had experienced what I had done when he came into Calgary as a young player and he wanted me to have success and everything.”

Rielly became more appreciative of those efforts in time. He saw what Phaneuf was trying to do, the lessons he was trying to impart.

Sometimes Phaneuf would counsel Rielly to enjoy his life in the game because the experience would pass by quickly. Then, Rielly recalled, Phaneuf would walk away before adding one more bit to his message.

“You’re going to remember that in 10 years when I’m gone,” Phaneuf would say.

“I don’t look at it as something that I’m doing,” Phaneuf said of leading. “It’s just how I learned and how I go about doing business.”

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