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Maple Leafs' Phaneuf wants to be 'part of the solution'

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- Dion Phaneuf admits he heard the rumors.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs undergoing a change in direction and top scorer Phil Kessel having been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for prospects and two draft picks, there was speculation Phaneuf might be the next to go.

It did not happen. Rather, new coach Mike Babcock said he welcomes the opportunity to work with the Maple Leafs captain. That is a relief for Phaneuf, who at age 30 is set to play his 11th season in the NHL.

"I never wanted to leave here," the defenseman said at the NHL's Player Media Tour in early September. "I signed here for a reason; I love being a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I love being a Toronto Maple Leaf. I love the city and I want to be a part of the solution. That's why I'm here."

With Babcock coaching, those who were with the organization prior to his arrival start the 2015-16 season with a clean slate. Babcock said he doesn't believe it is fair to evaluate players from afar.

As for Phaneuf, Babcock made it abundantly clear he thinks the veteran defenseman will be successful playing in his system. Babcock said it is a coach's job to help the leaders on the team and he intends to have an open line of communication with Phaneuf.

"I like Dion," Babcock said. "I think he's a good kid and he works hard and tries hard."

The feeling is mutual.

"I am really excited to play for Mike," Phaneuf said. "I had some really good conversations with him. As soon as he signed I thought it was great for our organization. He is a proven winner and he's got lots of experience. He has won at every level. If you look at the teams he had in Detroit it wouldn't matter how many injuries they had or how many guys retired, it just seemed that his teams were so consistent and that comes back to the structure that he has his teams play to. For us, and for me, that is exciting."

Phaneuf said when he spoke with Babcock in the summer, he was impressed with the coach's energy and he believes that kind of enthusiasm can be contagious.

"I am excited to work for him," Phaneuf said. "I don't know if 'fan' is the right word, but I think he has been very supportive of me and he has been very honest with me about what he expects. I expect to get my game back to a level I am capable of playing at and that is what he expects also."

Selected by the Calgary Flames with the ninth pick in the 2003 NHL Draft, Phaneuf made an immediate impact by scoring 20 goals and 49 points in 82 games in his rookie season. He scored 54 goals and 159 points in his first three seasons with the Flames and seemed to be well on his way toward winning a Norris Trophy as the League's best defenseman.

In his fifth season, Phaneuf was acquired by the Maple Leafs and not long afterward he was named their 18th captain. He said he has no regrets about taking on the role.

"Not one bit … not one bit," Phaneuf said emphatically. "When I started and I said I was proud and honored to be the captain of this team, I still am."

With the exception of the 2012-13 season, when the Maple Leafs made the Stanley Cup Playoffs and lost a hard-fought seven-game series against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round, they have mostly struggled in making it to the postseason once in the past 10 seasons. That is why Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan signed Babcock, new general manager Lou Lamoriello and Jacques Lemaire as special assignment coach.

"Last year is last year and I'm excited about this year," said Phaneuf, who like Shanahan is looking ahead. "That is the way everyone in the organization is going about it also. Last year is done. We have to move forward."

Phaneuf said Maple Leafs fans have been patient and he hopes he can be a part of a team that rewards them for their loyalty. Despite not having won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the Maple Leafs are blessed with a massive and enthusiastic fan base.

"With the change of our general manager, the addition of a whole new coaching staff and a whole bunch of new players, it's going to be an exciting fall," Phaneuf said. "The main thing is we have to come together as quick as possible in training camp and focus on getting better every day. We, as players, our job is to put the work in."

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