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Ulmer: Phaneuf Should Be Leafs Next Captain

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: Ulmer: The Kids Are Alright 
RELATED VIDEO: Burke Talks Phaneuf | Leafs TV On Phaneuf & Jiggy
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If you ask Dion Phaneuf a question, he will invariably pause.

This is your internal monologue during that pause.

“One Mississippi.

Two Mississippi.

Three Mississippi.

Did he hear me?

Is he going to kill me?”

Turns out, Phaneuf isn’t planning on killing anyone. He is just thinking about his answer and he is taking his time.  It’s your question but it’s his answer so he is going to give you the one he wants. If it takes a second or two longer to do that, well then that’s too bad.

The air is thick with Dion Phaneuf stories, often conveyed by coach Ron Wilson whose feeling for what the public can know from the Leafs dressing makes him a far better source than the rank and file.

There was the story, shared by Wilson, about Phaneuf walking into the dressing room during his first Leafs practice and cranking the stereo. The message in the gesture was plain enough: “if you’re not comfortable, then that’s too bad.”

Wilson cites Phaneuf for the internal leadership needed to badger and encourage the team to play with energy from the outset.

The Leafs have scored the first goal in eight of the 16 games Phaneuf has played.  That’s 50 per cent for you scoring along at home. They managed the opening goal just 19 times in the 56 games (29 per cent) before his arrival.

The Leafs penalty kill during Phaneuf’s tenure has operated at a dramatically improved 84 per cent mark.

From calling for every pass when it’s his turn in a drill, a favourite indicator of enthusiasm and professionalism for Leafs GM Brian Burke, to the way he comports himself in every avenue and the reverence he shows toward the sweater, Phaneuf  has positioned himself at the centre of the dressing room and filled a chasm brought on by the departure of the great Mats Sundin.

Phaneuf’s personal stats are a little harder to get a read on. After scoring 10 times in Calgary he has yet to break through in 16 games here. Likewise his goalscoring has trended steadily downhill since he scored 20 in his rookie year. He has 27 points this season, two more than fellow defenceman Francois Beauchemin who is not considered one of the gifted offensive defencemen of his era.

“He (Phaneuf) hasn’t produced number wise but with his shot and his speed we expect that will come around,” said Burke.

Phaneuf logs prodigious ice time. He has bettered 25 minutes a dozen times and he has one 30-minute game under his belt.

One stat trumps all the others. The Leafs, doormats for most of the season, have gone 9-6-1 with Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastien Giguere in harness. Clearly, these two have filled a need that goes further than the more appealing goals against column.

Phaneuf is the player who best embodies Burke’s view that you need a bit of Rock ‘Em and a bit of Sock ‘Em.

The thing is, you can’t fight every fight or level every player cradling a pass in open ice.

The wise player supplements energy with menace. You don’t have to do as much as long as everyone knows you can. That’s the way it is in the playground. That’s the way it was in Dodge City. That’s the way it is in the NHL.

That menace, the one that somehow seeps through when Dion Phaneuf casually answers questions, is what will someday make him the 17th Leaf to wear the "C". You need about two minutes with the guy to feel it.

To me, that’s why Dion Phaneuf’s hand will soon extend far beyond the locker room stereo.
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