When Ron Wilson said Dion Phaneuf
was the best defenceman in the NHL by a country mile, he elicited a fair share of astonishment.
“When I said that I got laughed at by a lot of people but his numbers are the best in the league,” Wilson said at practice, Tuesday. “People say, ‘what’s he talking about? That’s the bum from Calgary.’ That isn’t it at all. He’s found his game again and he’s working on it.”
Wilson seems to have a point. A glance at the Ulmerstandings II graph shows Phaneuf is, statistically at least, dominating the top 10-scoring defenceman in the league. He cracks the top 10 in five of the six categories. The next highest ranking player, Brian Campbell, managed to break into four out of the six categories. Sergei Gonchar, fourth in points but rated last among the 10 defencemen, washed out in all the other measurements.
That the Leafs are 7-3-1 speaks volumes to Phaneuf’s game. Only four players, James Wisniewski, Dan Girardi, Ryan Suter, and Brian Campbell have averaged more ice time. Phaneuf’s 11 points put him in a three-way tie for third among defencemen and his plus-minus trails only Sheldon Souray, author of a great comeback story in Dallas.
After half a dozen NHL seasons, the 26-year-old Phaneuf seems to be coming into his peak years. He has settled in nicely as the Leafs captain but more importantly, he has become the team’s heartbeat. Every element of the club in one way or another runs through Dion Phaneuf
Phaneuf’s first action when he was traded to the Leafs from Calgary was to walk into the dressing room at the Leafs practice rink, find the stereo and pump up the volume. He’s been doing that ever since.
“He talks to me a lot,” on the ice said goalie Jonas Gustavsson
. “He’s a leader on the ice. When I stop the puck, I always hear something from him.”
“You always know he’s in the room,” said Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn
. “He’s got that presence where he’s always talking. He’s loud. He speaks his mind. He definitely holds guys accountable.”
You can only do that if you have the game to match your actions. After scoring 20, 17 and 17 goals in his first three years with the Flames, Phaneuf’s offence dried up as he struggled with the defensive part of the game. He scored just twice in his first 26 games with the Leafs but last year scored eight while missing 16 games with a badly cut leg.
To rejuvenate his offence, Phaneuf became a more dependable defender.
“First and foremost, my job is to keep the puck out of our net,” Phaneuf said. “I take pride in being a guy that shuts down the other team’s top guys.”
Playing better defensively requires an uninterrupted mastery of several elements.
“He’s gapped up. He’s using his stick well. He’s engaged,” Wilson said. “He’s not running around looking for big hits. When the big hits are there he takes them.”
Much of Phaneuf’s success can be attributable to the understated game delivered by Carl Gunnarsson
, his defence partner from the beginning of training camp. Gunnarsson is an excellent skater who is prohibitively difficult to beat one on one. Thin but strong, Gunnarsson wins more than his share of puck battles and he happily cedes the offensive element of the game to Phaneuf.
“He has a good relationship with his partner,” Wilson said. “In the past, Dion has told me his best partner was Roman Hamrlik because Hamrlik just told him ‘go.’ Those were his two best years offensively and he thinks he’s got a similar partner.”
“The thing about Dion is that he plays so much but still brings so much energy to every shift,” said Gunnarsson. “You get your points on the power play so for him to play as much as he does on special teams and still have a great plus minus tells you how well he is playing.”
“Since I came into the league, my goal was to keep getting better and keep improving,” Phaneuf said. “That hasn’t changed. You learn with experience about the things you have to work on and get better at. I’m still learning, but I feel comfortable on the ice.”