It's no accident that as a youngster, Dion Phaneuf
looked up to Scott Stevens
After all, Stevens is one of the most physical players in NHL history (he ranked No. 1 on NHL.com's all-time list of the most physical players
). As he was rising through youth hockey, Stevens was the player Phaneuf tried to emulate.
"When I was growing up, as I got older, I looked up to Scott Stevens
and the way he played the game," Phaneuf told NHL.com. "I idolized how hard he played and how physical he played, how he was such a great leader -- I think he missed the playoffs just once in his whole career. He was a great guy to look up to. I loved the style that he played and how he led."
Not only does Phaneuf want to play like Stevens -- he says he has to play physically to be at his best.
"When I was growing up, as I got older, I looked up to Scott Stevens and the way he played the game. I idolized how hard he played and how physical he played, how he was such a great leader -- I think he missed the playoffs just once in his whole career. He was a great guy to look up to. I loved the style that he played and how he led." -- Leafs' captain Dion Phaneuf
"It's the way that I have to play," he said. "It's a big part of the way that I play, and for me to be effective, for me to be good, for me to play my game, I have to be physical. When I'm not physical, I'm not very effective."
Stevens captained New Jersey to three Stanley Cups. Phaneuf was named captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs
before the start of last season and aims to start catching up to his idol by leading the Leafs to their first playoff berth since 2004.
"That's why we play the game," he said of the playoff quest. "You don't just play the game to be done in April. Everyone plays to win, to give yourself a chance to win, and you don't have a chance to win if you're not in the playoffs. That's where we want to get, and that's where we have to get. We were close last year; we weren't eliminated until there were two games left in the season. We had a good run. We played hard, but we couldn't make up the ground we lost at the start of the season."
The Leafs' struggles at the start of last season doomed their playoff hopes. Part of those struggles were due to a leg injury that kept Phaneuf out of the lineup for 16 games and slowed him for several more after he came back.
"It was awful," he said of the first major injury of his NHL career, a major skate cut to his left leg. "It was something that I'd never experienced. I've been hurt at the end of years and had the summer to rehab and get ready for the next year, but having a major injury is something that was not a lot of fun to go through. It was a very serious injury, one that took a lot more out of me than I expected. I probably tried to come back too early. It was a major injury that took a lot of time to heal."
By the time it had healed, the Leafs were so far back in the Eastern Conference that not even one of the NHL's best second-half records could get them into the top eight. The arrival of rookie goaltender James Reimer
at midseason helped to spark the second-half surge -- and gives Phaneuf a lot of optimism entering the new season.
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"Like any team, when you have good goaltending, it's infectious. Your team is that much more confident." he said. "Reims came in and he was really, really, really solid for us and played extremely well. We played very confidently when he was in the net. I'm really looking forward to him starting the year with us, because the way he played last year he was extremely, extremely good for us and we played well in front of him."
Toronto's captain said success this season will take more than just getting off to a good start.
"Getting off to a good start is important," he said. "But you can't just get off to a good start and then fall off. You've got to keep it going -- you have to be consistent. You can't have these extreme highs and extreme lows -- win three and lose four. You've got to be consistent. That's what we've got to do this year to make the playoffs."
Phaneuf also is excited about the arrival of newcomers Tim Connolly
and Matthew Lombardi
in the middle and John-Michael Liles
on the blue line. Liles, a skilled passer, could help Phaneuf return to the form that made him a 20-goal scorer as a rookie in Calgary in 2005-06.
"He's obviously got a big shot and he's someone I'm looking for and I'm sure a lot of guys on the team do, too," Liles said.
Though Phaneuf's goal-scoring numbers have decreased steadily from his 20-goal rookie season -- he had just 8 goals last season -- he feels the combination of good health and an improved team will help him turn on the red light more often.
"I'm the same player," he said when asked if his game has changed since he entered the NHL in 2005. "Statistically last year I didn't have a great year, but I was hurt -- I missed a quarter of the season -- so it's tough to compare. When you miss close to 20 games, it's definitely tough to have the same statistics.
"I'm the same player I was back then; I scored 20 in my first year and that's where I want to be. I want to get back to that. I haven't changed the style of play from then to now, but teams adapt. There's more guys in the shooting lanes and that makes it harder to get pucks through. I want to be in the 15-to-20 goal range this year. I'm looking forward to getting back to that."