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Phaneuf Eager To Lead Retooled Leafs

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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For Dion Phaneuf, the view from Prince Edward Island is getting better and better.

Speaking from his off-season home in PEI, the Maple Leafs' 18th captain said the combination of a retooled blue line and the acquisition of highly talented offensive players has left him more optimistic than ever about the team’s fortunes.

“I’m very excited about the moves we made in the off- season, ”he said. “The biggest thing for us is going to be about starting the year the way we finished,”

The Leafs went 24-15-7 after James Reimer took over in net, January 1. Extrapolate that half season to a full campaign based on last year’s final standings and the Leafs would have finished with a 13-point improvement, a share of seventh place in the west and a sixth-place standing in the East.

“I think if you look over the season we took some really big steps,” Phaneuf said. “Because we weren’t out of the race until the very end we played a lot of big games and I think that is going to benefit us this year.”

The Leafs’ overhaul started in the coaching ranks where assistant coaches Keith Acton and Tim Hunter were replaced by Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin.

The club signed former Islander and Sabre Tim Connolly hoping one would emerge as the first-line playmaker they have long coveted. Puckmoving defenceman John-Michael Liles, the heir to Tomas Kaberle, was added to add his skills to the power play.

Two more players, Mathew Lombardi and Cody Franson were acquired from Nashville. Lombardi is recovering from a concussion and is hoping to be ready for training camp.

Franson is a six-foot-four offensively able defenceman.

“I played a lot against Liles when I was with Calgary and he was a real talented player who could move the puck very well,” Phaneuf said. “I think if you look at Franson’s numbers, (eight goals and 29 points in 80 games, playing behind all-star Shea Weber) you can project a really good player.

“I played with Lombo for a few years in Calgary and he is just a great fit for us, a real good teammate who is a great skater and another very talented player.

“Connolly has great hands and feet. I think all of them will really help us.”

Phaneuf missed 16 games because of a deep cut to his leg from a skate blade. He nonetheless scored eight goals and tallied 30 points. Playing an average of 25:18, Phaneuf logged nearly three minutes more ice time a night than his closest colleague, Luke Schenn.

Facing the opposition’s top line most nights and beside rookie Keith Aulie, Phaneuf finished minus two. When asked for the most encouraging element of the 2011-2012 season, general manager Brian Burke cited the chance to have Phaneuf play full season.

Many pointed to his play as just the kind of resurgence Burke was hoping for when he landed the former first rounder from Calgary but Phaneuf has always downplayed the notion that a drop in his statistics underscored a flattening of his game.

“I’m still the same player I have always been,” said the 26-year-old. “I probably came back too fast from the leg injury and my stats reflected that but I think it was a good season and I hope to build on that.”

Phaneuf said he loved wearing the C.

“From a team standpoint, you knew we were going to have some ups and downs but the best part of is we went through them together and grew a lot. As for the captaincy, I loved it. They were an amazing group to lead and I’m really looking forward to Year 2.”
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