Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf
will play in his 400th career regular-season game with the team Tuesday against New Jersey, but not much has changed about the veteran defenseman since Toronto acquired him via a blockbuster trade with Calgary on Jan. 31, 2010. He’s still a relatively stoic figure for public consumption, and he’s still beloved in the Leafs dressing room, where he’s more comfortable showing more of his personality.
And whether it’s someone new to the organization who’s working with him for the first season, or a fellow Buds veteran, everyone in the Leafs dressing room is more than happy to have him around.
“He’s been real good,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of Phaneuf’s play this season. “What I was told (before coming to Toronto this summer) and what I have is night-and-day different. Real good leader, real good person in the room, real good with our young guys. He’s been excellent. He’s creating offense for us, he’s been a good partner for (Jake Gardiner), keeps him in line. We’ve liked what he’s been able to do for us.”
“He’s been great,” added winger James van Riemsdyk, who has been a teammate of Phaneuf’s since 2012. “Since Day One since I’ve been here, he’s the first guy to call me when I got traded here. He’s a great teammate, a great captain a great leader and a great player. We’re happy to have him on our team.”
If you talk to Leafs players, you find out that extra personal touch is a hallmark of Phaneuf. The 30-year-old will go the extra mile to make new teammates feel at home in the organization, and players don’t forget or fail to appreciate it.
“He called me when I was drafted, and I think right there that speaks volumes about him,” said Leafs blueliner Morgan Rielly. “I’m not sure if each captain does that, but he’s just one of those guys that makes you feel like you’re really part of the team, even when you’re 18. I had a really good first impression from him, and it hasn’t changed one bit. First-class all around for him.”
Now captain of the Buds for more than five years, Phaneuf is thriving under Babcock, leading the team in assists (13) and playing on pace for his best offensive point total in a Toronto uniform (his current team-best is 44 points, amassed in 2011-12). But on a Leafs squad that’s retooling for the future, it’s Phaneuf’s professionalism, focus and drive that might be his biggest contributions.
“He’s a worker,” Rielly said of Phaneuf. “He’s our captain and our leader, both by example and vocally. Most importantly, he’s out there to do his job and help the team win games. He has to do what he has to do, and he’s been doing it for years. He loves his job and plays the game with integrity, and he’s very well-respected.”
Phaneuf may take heat in some circles for not being a demonstrative NHLer who wears his heart on his sleeve. But behind closed doors, he’s endeared himself to the people who matter most to him: his teammates.
“There’s always this impression he’s not liked, but every time I’m out with him, people love him,” Rielly said. “And he loves the fans here. He treats them with respect. He is a bit different behind closed doors, but in a good way, a lighthearted way. He likes to joke around, and he for sure talks the most in this room when we’re just hanging out. He’s one of those guys that can change the mood of the room just by walking in. He’s a great guy.”
“When you’re his teammate and you’re here with him every day going to work, you realize what he means to you as a teammate and to this organization,” added van Riemsdyk. “We know what kind of guy he is in here, and frankly, (outside perception) doesn’t really matter.”