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Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf. (Jeff McIntosh)
Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf. (Jeff McIntosh)

Phaneuf 'excited' to be in Toronto Add to ...

It was a situation many - including professional athletes, who are accustomed to these sorts of dog-and-pony shows - would find intimidating.

A small blue podium, 50 unfamiliar faces with a few uncomfortable questions, and all of it coming in Day 1 as a Toronto Maple Leaf yesterday for the 29th-place NHL team's latest knight in shining armour.

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Far from intimidated, however, Dion Phaneuf stepped into the fray, cracked a smile and said - 15 times in his nine-minute address, no less - he was "excited" to be there.

It was a snapshot of what's to come from the 24-year-old defenceman during his time in Toronto: A lot of swagger but not much to say.

In many ways, Phaneuf isn't just another faceless NHL star - even if he does most of his talking with big hits and a booming slap shot. Through marketing campaigns and a unique blend of talent, he's become a highlight reel king - a "monster" of the highest order according to TSN analyst Pierre McGuire's lexicon - and has the movie star girlfriend on his arm to add a little bit of off-ice flash.

Phaneuf also instantly becomes the most interesting player on his new team because of the way he plays - even if he's more likely to drive a pickup than a sports car.

"I'm really excited to be here," he said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge here and really looking forward to winning some games as a group.

"I'm going to play my game and do what I do. I'm not going to change that."

Phaneuf's game, however, is one of the key reasons he's no longer a Calgary Flame - dealt last Sunday as the centrepiece of a massive, seven-player swap - and has been in decline ever since he took a star turn two years ago, en route to challenging for the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top blueliner.

This season, he's on pace for only 32 points, which would be by far his lowest output in the NHL.

Phaneuf is also not yet a complete player, having never emerged as a defensive stalwart despite his considerable $6.5-million (U.S.) annual salary.

Now, joining a team in desperate need of improving its play when a man down, he was in large part pulled off the penalty-killing unit in Calgary after struggling in that role in previous years.

And then there are the rumblings of discontent in the Flames dressing room, disagreements with teammates and difficulty being coached, all strikes that likely put a formerly untradeable asset suddenly on the block.

Even so, everyone in the Maple Leafs organization seems to realize that, in a season in which far too many players have lacked or lost confidence, it might help to have a young buck strut into what's become a cowed dressing room.

"He has a bit of personality," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "It's nice to have that. Joe Thornton brings the same kind of swagger to the San Jose [Sharks] room. … A magnetic personality who's fun to be around. I sense that already with Dion."

"You can see it on the ice in practice," said centre Wayne Primeau, who spent 2 1/2 seasons in Calgary with Phaneuf. "He's being vocal and he wasn't shy to holler for pucks and compete in practice, even though it was his first one. If that can wear off on some of the young guys, it's an added bonus."

Primeau added that, despite Phaneuf's recent regression, he feels the youngster can elevate his game in Toronto.

"In Boston, we had [Zdeno]Chara and he came in one year and signed the big contract coming over from Ottawa," Primeau said. "When he came over, it almost like he felt he had to do everything. He had to almost change his game. But the whole thing is the reason they gave him that money is because of what he did prior to that.

"I think guys maybe put a little more pressure on themselves when they sign that big deal, they feel they have to do more. … It's one of those things where I think, for Dion, he's just got to play his game and not try to do too much."

On that front, one of the many questions Phaneuf fielded yesterday asked whether or not he was - as Toronto's highest-paid player - now the face of the Leafs franchise.

"If you want to say that," he offered.

Less than 48 hours after the trade was announced, many in Leafs Nation already are. But it will take a whole lot longer than that to truly know if he can live up to expectations that are growing by the day.

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