Dion Phaneuf: Expectations High Heading Into 2011-12 Season
One of the keys to Maple Leafs’ success will likely be the play of Captain Dion Phaneuf, who, in the minds of many Leaf fans, turned the corner on recapturing his glory days as a member of the Calgary Flames where he put together four straight 45+ point seasons and earned the respect of the opposition through spirited play and bone-jarring hits.
Since the big trade, Phaneuf has played a total of 92 games as a member of the Maple Leafs, lighting the lamp ten times and registering a a total of 40 points, while earning a respectable minus four rating.
Phaneuf started the 2010-11 season off slowly, registering his first goal of the season on December 14th against the Edmonton Oilers. Of course Phaneuf’s leg injury played a huge role in Phaneuf’s inability to score early on in the season—still, it took 13 games for him to find the back of the net, which is too long.
Phaneuf would go an additional 22 games before notching his second goal, February seventh versus the Atlanta Thrashers, a fact not lost on many Leaf fans.
Along the way, Phaneuf’s leadership and dedication were questioned by the fans, causing some to boo the captain, which did not sit well with Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke.
“Are they entitled to do it? (boo Phaneuf)” Burke said, “Sure, they are. And I honestly don’t believe it was a lot of them. It doesn’t take many fans booing to be heard so I think we’re talking about a very small number, but my opinion is that it’s disgraceful to boo Dion Phaneuf for everything he has done for this franchise, on and off the ice, in a very short period of time.”
Burke often points to Phaneuf’s ability to change the culture of the team as a big reason he has never lost faith in his captain.
From day one when Phaneuf went into the Maple Leafs dressing room prior to his first game in the Blue and White and turned up the stereo in the dressing room, Phaneuf’s presence has played a major role in changing the attitude and culture of a team that has lacked any sort of identity (other than being a losing franchise) for nearly a decade.
Burke has long praised Phaneuf for his charity work off the ice, while maintaining that Phaneuf’s play on the ice had exceeded expectations as well. Outside of a few hiccups, Phaneuf has demonstrated a willingness to put the team on his back, stand up for his teammates and, while the offensive results have been sporadic, Phaneuf looks to be making a comeback of sorts.
Buried behind Tomas Kaberle as the Leafs second offensive option both five-on-five and on the point while playing the power play, Phaneuf blossomed after Kaberle was traded to the Boston Bruins on February 20th.
Phaneuf scored six goals in the next 23 games, earning 15 points along the way. Of course six goals and 15 points in 23 games are not Bobby Orr type stats, but they are enough to suggest Phaneuf found his grove towards the end of last season, which, in turn, has many fans of the Blue and White looking to Phaneuf for a big season in 2011-12.
Could another 50 point season be on the horizon for Phaneuf? Perhaps.
Of course, he will need to stay healthy and his teammates will have to find a way to bury the puck more often on the power play, but if all goes well, Phaneuf should be able to find his way back to that 50 point level, which may also help his chances of becoming an all-star again.
Early on in his career Phaneuf was regarded as one of the NHL’s most feared players, making The Hockey News magazines top ten list in 2008-09.
Since then, Phaneuf has seen his star fall to the point where many have said he has lost his mean-streak and ability to make “the big hit”, subsequently making him an afterthought where “most feared players” are concerned.
While there has been little proof that Phaneuf is back to the level of his early days as a young NHL star, there is a feeling that Phaneuf is developing into a more well-rounded defenseman, who, by dropping the big-hit from his portfolio from time-to-time, has managed to stay in position on more nights than not, which is key in today’s NHL where speed and agility rule the forward position.
The evolution of both Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie as big hitting defensemen (at least where numbers are concerned) should allow Phaneuf to concentrate on being the go-to guy on the power play and the Leafs best all-round defenseman.
No longer does Phaneuf need to be the Leafs enforcer, big hitter, point man and leader— he can now take a step back, concentrate on what the teams needs him to do and delegate some of the dirty work to Schenn, Aulie and others.
Without question, expectations are high for Phaneuf heading into the 2011-12 season— as they should be.
Carrying a cap hit of $6.5 million this season, Phaneuf is set to be the 12th highest paid defenseman in the League (not taking Drew Doughty’s pending contract into consideration).
Big money often follows big expectations, a point that cannot be missed on fans, management and Phaneuf himself.
Will Phaneuf finally put together a magical season as a member of the Maple Leafs?
Time will tell, but if you believe in upswings and you believe in the players around Phaneuf being better this season, 50 points should be within reach for Dion, which could be magical indeed.
Until next time,