By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 24) – Hey, guess what? In the past couple of days, I have actually heard, and read, that Dion Phaneuf is capable of playing defense in the National Hockey League. Which is evidence that miracles are truly abounding in Leaf land.
If you’ve paid even casual attention to this corner, you’ll know that Captain Dion, in my humble view, has been largely disrespected in his time with the Leafs. For that, Brian Burke can be credited and blamed. Credited for acquiring Phaneuf nearly four years ago in a preposterously one-sided trade with Calgary and blamed for building his new chattel into Moses, Jesus Christ, Allah, Buddha and just about any divine being of your proclivity (I think I’ve covered most). Burke, in his myopia, slapped a “C” on Phaneuf’s blue and white jersey faster than Moe slapped Curly after a wise-crack. Alas, the God of all hockey Gods could not lead a rudderless team up or down a mole-hill, let alone a mountain.
First impressions being what they are, Phaneuf has since been viewed with a crinkled brow. Despite his copious minutes-per-game; his ability to step up and cleanly wallop an opposing forward, and his generally good scoring numbers, Dion lived, and mostly died, on the sword of misadventure. When he moved up, imprudently, to try and make a play in overtime against Boston last spring – and David Krejci ended the post-season match seconds later – you would have thought Phaneuf had joined the Taliban. The poor guy nearly had to climb an alter to beg forgiveness, and forgiveness never came after Maple Leafs crumbled amid the Bruin blitzkrieg in the third period of Game 7. Woe was Dion.
Then we had summer… an opportunity for Leafs Nation to consider and acknowledge the entire movie, not just a particular scene (one of Burke’s ardent analogies). Yes, it was true: For the first time in nearly a decade, Leafs had appeared in the Stanley Cup tournament and probably should have survived the Sweet Sixteen. Rabid followers of the Blue and White approaching 20 years of age actually bore witness, for the first time, to their heroes in a playoff environment. For city blocks, these enduring souls strained their eyes to watch the big, digital screen in the west plaza of Air Canada Centre; with nearly 20,000 more privileged to be on the inside. Though it ended in cataclysm, there was much to be thankful for. The summer also brought matrimony to the Leafs captain and his Hollywood bride. Tranquility began to prevail.
JONAS HILLER OF ANAHEIM SKATES DEJECTEDLY TO HIS CREASE AS MAPLE LEAFS CELEBRATE DION PHANEUF’S SECOND-PERIOD GOAL TUESDAY NIGHT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. TORONTO PREVAILED, 4-2. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Early this season, with Leafs off to a resounding – though slightly deceptive – 7-3-0 mark, Phaneuf is attracting eyebrows that are raised rather than crinkled. Such things tend to occur with the captain of a good team, which Dion is clearly a part of right now. To my eyes, he isn’t playing remarkably different than he has at any time since the trade from Calgary. He still tends to fumble the puck while hounded by fore-checkers, but show me a defenseman in the NHL that is foolproof under duress (Nick Lidstrom came closest in my years covering hockey).
Perhaps Dion’s value can be most poignantly articulated by imagining the Leafs without him, which may become an economic necessity after the current season. His heir apparent would seem to be Cody Franson, but it’s asking a lot for any player to consume Phaneuf’s nearly half-a-game of ice time; his minutes on the powerplay and penalty kill, and, especially, his physical presence at the Toronto blue-line; in the corners and in front of the net – the latter requiring more spunk. The sum of Dion’s parts, therefore, adds up to quite an indispensable commodity.
Leaf fans clearly haven’t warmed to Phaneuf, though affection seems to be flourishing. This is nothing new, of course. In the post-Wendel Clark/Doug Gilmour era, Mats Sundin was looked upon as a tepid leader. And while he was the only logical successor to Gilmour as captain in 1997, it took the better part of three years before Leaf zealots began to acknowledge his true presence. When Pat Quinn signed Sundin to a lucrative, multi-year contract in 2000, hockey fans in this region winced. Only when Mats indisputably became a big-time playoff performer (ask fans in Ottawa) – thereby “earning” his keep – did the clamor subside.
Perhaps that has been Phaneuf’s undoing… to this point.
It is difficult, of course, to be a playoff warrior when your team is watching the Cup tournament on TV, as happened in Dion’s first three years here. And while he performed effectively for Leafs through much of the seven-game clash with Boston last May, he is best remembered for his fateful “pinch” at the Air Canada Centre, and for the club’s unraveling in the final minutes of the series at TD Garden.
Chances are, however, Maple Leafs will not win a playoff round next spring without abundant influence from their captain. Only when such a triumph occurs does it appear No. 3 will truly become No. 1 in the collective heart of Leafs Nation.
And, maybe that’s the way it should be.
WHEN LEAFS WERE PERFECT
Much was made – in this corner and elsewhere – of Wednesday night being the 20th anniversary of Joe Carter’s walk-off home run that enabled the Blue Jays to repeat as World Series champion in 1993. Only such a moment would have relegated Leafs to the back pages on a night when they broke the NHL record for most wins to begin a season. A 2-0 triumph over Tampa Bay Lightning under the dome at Tropicana Field provided Leafs a 9-0-0 mark, surpassing the 8-0-0 dash from the gate by Buffalo 18 years earlier – to begin the 1975-76 schedule.
Evidence from the Toronto Star of 20 years ago today is here:
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