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Phaneuf Has Been Burke's Pillar

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

When Brian Burke traded for Dion Phaneuf on January 31, 2010, he risked very little.

What he gained was the pillar on which every other acquisition has been positioned.

The players who went to Calgary, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, Ian White and Nik Hagman were going to go somewhere. Ex-Leafs litter the NHL. Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Luke Schenn are the only holdovers from when Burke signed on three years ago Tuesday.

Ask Burke about the key moments in his time with the Leafs and he will start with January 31, 2010.

Number of Leafs games since trade: 131
Record since trade: 63-52-16
Points in that span: 142
Record in 131 games before trade: 54-59-18
Points in that span: 126
Difference: 16 points
Total points out of playoffs last 2 seasons:  24
Leafs record with Phaneuf in lineup 58-44-13
Leafs record without Phaneuf in lineup 5-8-3
Phaneuf's Leaf PPG 1st two seasons: .32
Phaneuf PPG this season: .75
Phaneuf’s career had stalled in Calgary. Always a point producer, his plus-minus fell to minus 11 in his last full season with the Flames. There had been a slight dip, compounding and confounding in Phaneuf’s game. The mixture of a thunderous shot, excellent skating and devastating physical play was being dragged under. Phaneuf’s defensive game had slumped.
The media talked about fissures in the dressing room.

Flash forward to the present. With 18 points in 24 games, Phaneuf sits fifth in scoring for defencemen.  His leadership is unquestioned. Prized rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner has been installed in the locker beside Phaneuf. The Leafs, though still something short of pathologically truculent, can at least be unpleasant and Phaneuf’s aura as a flinty competitor and punishing hitter is back in full flower.

Burke has experience in landing kingpin defencemen. He had barely unpacked his bags in Anaheim before singing Scott Niedermayer. Trading for Chris Pronger pushed the Ducks over the top.

The deal with Calgary proved ridiculously one-sided.  Matt Stajan is the only player still in Calgary. The likeable centre has yet to score and has four points in 14 games.  Making the exchange even more lopsided was Burke’s insistence that the trade include Keith Aulie. Aulie excelled beside Phaneuf last season, stumbled in training camp and found himself with the Marlies largely because of Gardiner’s superior play. Back up because of an injury to Mike Komisarek, the six-foot-six Aulie would be a top-four shutdown defenceman on many NHL teams.

So while the move carried little downside considering the players shipped to the Flames, Burke’s view of Phaneuf ran against the prevailing wisdom.  Burke saw in Phaneuf large pieces of himself. Both men carry a gruff exterior. Both are frank. Both are relentlessly competitive. Both have yet to be caught smiling on camera.

We asked Brian Burke and Dion Phaneuf to speak about each other. Here is what they said.

Brian Burke:

“What did I see in Dion? Everything.

“He’s a monster player, a physical presence, a leader. He has a hard shot. I thought he had slipped from what I thought he was as a player. I thought we could get him back to that.

“I told him, ‘look, I don’t care what’s happened in Calgary. I know what kind of player you are and we’re going to get you back there. You will be a big physical presence and a leader. We’re not where we want to be as a team but you are going to go a long way in getting us there‘.”

“We didn’t need leadership when we got Chris Pronger. We already had Scott Niedermayer. Pronger brought more skill and toughness and provided complementary leadership. We needed Dion to really grab the wheel here. He’s done the whole thing.”

Dion Phaneuf:

“With Burkie he’s a very personable guy but he’s all business. When he is in the room his presence is felt. There is no grey area with him. He’ll tell you how it is whether you like to hear it or not. He’ll tell you how he feels you are playing, good or bad.

“It’s great to have that relationship with your general manager. He’s the boss. We work for him. I think he’s done a really good job in bringing in a lot of pieces.

“It was a shock when I first got traded. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But when I got the call from him, I was extremely excited. It was the best move of my career and it was thanks to him.

“He’s a guy who has won. He’s had success in the league. I’m real glad he made that move. To be in this room is a huge honour. I love this team. We’re building something here. It’s exciting to be a part of that.”

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