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Leafs set to take on a familiar face

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

With former Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf at Air Canada Centre Saturday for his first game against his ex-team since he was dealt to Ottawa last month, the guys who shared a dressing room with him for years admitted it was going to be odd to see him in a Senators jersey. But to a man, they also noted they expect Leafs fans to provide a warm welcome back for the veteran defenceman who gave his all to the organization in the six years he represented Toronto.

“I think it’ll be positive – it should be,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said of how he expects the ACC crowd to react to Phaneuf Saturday night. “He’s given everything he has, he’s played hard every single game he had the opportunity of playing for the Maple Leafs, and he was a great captain for a lot of us. I think the support will be great.”

“I think Dion had a great career here in Toronto,” said Buds D-man Morgan Rielly. “He always treated the fans with respect, he was active within the community, and I think that the people of Toronto know hockey, they know that he was a good person. I’m personally expecting cheers, but I mean, you never know.”

“(The crowd’s reaction) should be outstanding,” added Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, “because in my opinion – and I just had a limited time with him – good man, played hard, trained right…I think he’s a really good man. He’s got his head on his shoulders, I think he’s helped Ottawa. He really helped us; we’re not as good a team thus far without him. We knew that. I don’t know, I think we should just say thanks.”

Phaneuf was dealt to the Sens Feb. 9 in a nine-player transaction that brought forwards Colin Greening and Milan Michalek, blueliner Jared Cowen, prospect Tobias Lindberg and Ottawa's 2017 second round draft pick to Toronto in return. The 30-year-old Phaneuf had on Jan. 31 celebrated his sixth calendar year as a member of the Leafs organization and was in the midst of a long-term contract extension, but the Buds’ rebuilding efforts necessitated his departure. And although his absence has opened up more opportunities for the Leafs’ young D-men, the organization’s current members admit Phaneuf’s presence as one of the most vocal members of the team isn’t easily replaced.

“He was always verbally kind of out there, and as a captain, I think that’s how it should be done and he was always a leader on and off the ice,” Kadri said of Phaneuf. who played 423 regular-season games with the Leafs and registered 45 goals and 196 points in that span. “Collectively, we’ve tried to replace that, but it’s obviously tough to replace right away.”

Phaneuf’s persona for public consumption was a stoic leader who did his talking on the ice, but away from the media, he was regarded as a fun-loving guy who did his utmost to motivate and protect his teammates. That’s what the current Leafs remember most about him, and why he’s still missed.

“When the cameras come on, you have to understand you have to put on a certain perception, especially as a captain who’s constantly looked at to be scrutinized, whether he deserves it or not,” Kadri said. “But he’s a super-fun guy, liked to keep it loose, but at the same time, he was one of the hardest workers I’ve seen and had one of those competitive edges that never wanted to lose. So I think he was kind of misled a little bit.”

“(Defencemen Morgan) Rielly and (Jake) Gardiner love him, and why would they love him?” Babcock added. “Well, they love him because he looked after them, and he took the heat off them. Rielly and Gardiner never got much heat. He got the heat… He was a good teammate, and tried hard for the organization.”

The last time the two intra-provincial rivals met on Feb. 6 in Ottawa, the Senators thrashed the Leafs 6-1. And although neither team is likely to make the playoffs this year, that previous game, as well as the natural divisional and geographic rivalry – and yes, Phaneuf’s return – will motivate the Leafs to deliver a better result.

“The team we’re playing tonight lit us up last time,” Babcock said. “We didn’t perform well. The building was half-full of Maple Leaf fans who paid their good money to watch us play and we didn’t, so we’d better be better tonight.”

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