Will the Real Dion Phaneuf Please Stand Up?
2010-2011 The second half, and the return to glory
Dion Phaneuf, who is often referred to by his teammates as a horse on the blue line, had a difficult time regaining the form that made him a Norris candidate during his tenure in Calgary. While Dion had struggled in the first half of his first season as captain, his game in the second half was not to be forgotten.
Suffering from a severe laceration on his inner thigh, Dion himself has publicly stated that he attempted to come back too early. Having to wear a brace was something foreign to him and hampered his game upon his return.
By the time Phaneuf had returned to full health, the team around him had undergone some reconstructive surgery itself. The departure of veterans François Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle allowed the young captain to feel as though the team was finally ‘his’. Dion slowly acclimated himself to the media and pressures of being the captain of the blue and white.
First came the monstrous hits, the captain started laying players out like it was going out of fashion. More important than that though, he was doing it without being caught out of position too often. Often giving his team a huge boost or swinging the momentum in their favor, the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs began to see the player they thought they were getting when the blockbuster trade was announced.
Fans, including myself, were quite happy to see the bruising blue liner regain his hard hitting form. Personally I thought that his offense was something he’d never regain to the degree he had in Calgary. The truculent captain proved me and many other skeptics wrong. In the final 41 games of the season Phaneuf amassed 8 goals and 25 points.
The question many Leafs fans had going into the 2011-2012 season is which Phaneuf they would see.
2011-2012 Preseason, another tale of two Phaneufs
After a long an anxious off season for many Leafs fans the pre-season was finally upon us. A few new faces created, and will continue to create good competition for the first time in a while on the Leafs blue line. Many analysts and fans considered the pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie to be a lock for the 2011-2012 season. It quickly became evident to anybody watching training camp footage and pre-season games that Aulie was not the same player that shot gunned Phaneuf on the top pairing in the 2010-2011 season. Sophomore slump or not, Aulie would not be playing with Phaneuf, and the Leafs captain needed a new partner.
While personally I felt it might be fun to see the captain play with young stud Luke Schenn, Ron Wilson had other ideas. Auditioning him with Carl Gunnarsson the pair seemed to be a good match; the defensively capable Gunnarsson was able to cover for his wandering defense partner.
While the offense in the preseason wasn’t quite where Leaf fans wanted, Phaneuf showcased his physical game for the entire league to see. While teammate Clarke MacArthur had been suspended for a hit to the head of Justin Abdelkader, Phaneuf was trying to lay out opposing players while ensuring he wasn’t taking penalties.
Unfortunately for the Leafs captain, he was often on the wrong end of a penalty call. Whether it was a charging or elbowing penalty, the Leafs captain would be penalized much to the confusion of his coach and teammates. While these were preseason games, and the repercussions of the penalties were not overly concerning, fans were growing weary of Phaneuf’s physical play. If the penalties continued into the regular season they would surely be capitalized on by NHL level opposition.
Phaneuf took it upon himself to right the wrongs he felt he was committing, after every penalty Dion would skate to the ref, ask why he was being penalized and calmly proceed to the penalty box. Phaneuf displayed great initiative, he’s become a great role model for the younger players on the team; good things to see from the team’s leader.
This was the beginning of a new look Phaneuf, one still fearsome and mean, yet disciplined. He became less likely to go after a big hit if the opportunity would leave him out of position, and instead played an incredibly solid two-way game.
2011-2012 Regular Season, here we go
After what felt like a game was being played every night, it was finally time for the regular season to begin, and the points to become meaningful. The atmosphere in the Air Canada Center was electric and the introducing of the players was almost spine tingling. The captain was announced; little did anyone know that the “Old Phaneuf” was back. The scowling captain was ready for what he hopes will be a season to remember.
The puck dropped and the race for the Stanley Cup playoffs was officially on. Logging 23:57 minutes in ice time, Dion Phaneuf was used in all situations. With 1G 1A for 2PTS a +2 with 3 shots, Dion was an impact player.
Punishing players who dared to go into his corner, and unafraid to initiate a battle in front of either net, Phaneuf’s physical presence was felt. More important than that though was his ability to punish players and give his team a boost without taking a dumb penalty. Continuing to play like this will contribute not only to his personal success but it will be key to the success of the team as a whole. Physically dominating will be key, making opposing players think twice about carrying the puck over the blue line, and in open ice. Leading to more dump-ins or misplayed pucks, both of which can benefit the Leafs if capitalized on properly.
A staple of Dion Phaneuf in Calgary was his ability to one-time pucks for highlight worthy goals. Something Leafs fans had been left behind when the Dion packed his bags for Toronto. Little did the fan base know that in the second half of the 2010-2011 season and thus far the beginning of the 2011-2012 season Phaneuf would begin to regain his form. Picking up a fantastically set up goal thanks to sniper Phil Kessel (who is also off to a roaring start) reminiscent of his days in Calgary, the “Old Phaneuf” appears to be back; or so Leaf Nation hopes.
Since the season opener Phaneuf has also managed to absolutely demolish Da Costa of the Ottawa Senators, a firm reminder to the league that a clean hit can still be devastating. Dion has also picked up another assist bringing him to 3PTS, brought his +/- to +7 which currently leads the league and has now totaled 11 shots.
The real question is, which Dion Phaneuf will proceed to play all 82 games? Penalty prone, offensively incapable Phaneuf, or the defensively responsible horse on the blue line with the lethal slap shot? Only time will tell.