TORONTO – As the city whizzed by outside the bus window, Dion Phaneuf thought back to a couple places he once called home here.
It’s been a topsy-turvy season, with Phaneuf recently becoming a first-time father but also having the bottom fall out of his Ottawa Senators. He was in a reflective mood during a quick stop in Toronto this week – looking back on the past, and acknowledging that he doesn’t know what the future holds for him with the winds of change blowing strongly in the nation’s capital.
“We put ourselves in this position as players,” Phaneuf said Wednesday night. “When you don’t win hockey games there are questions from the outside. I think everyone’s stood up, they’ve answered them, and the guys have come to work with a professional attitude that we’ve got to work our way out of it.
“That’s part of when you don’t have success – changes happen, there’s talk of change, and we’re living that.”
Phaneuf may not be the most likely of Sens to get moved by the Feb. 26 trade deadline, but there has been chatter. He’s still playing on the monster contract former Leafs general manager Dave Nonis gave him on the last day of 2013 and it carries a $7-million cap hit for three seasons beyond this one.
With owner Eugene Melnyk recently musing about the possibility of cutting payroll in Ottawa, it’s the kind of deal a number-cruncher would want off the books – and Phaneuf only has limited control over his situation with a 12-team trade list.
That’s just business.
On the personal side of things, the veteran defenceman is a popular figure inside the organization. He wears an “A” on his sweater and plays an important role in the dressing room – speaking up when something needs to be said, and setting a standard through his exemplary work ethic.
“He’s one of those guys that never bails out,” said coach Guy Boucher. “He could be completely sick [where] a lot of guys would stay in bed, and he’s there. He’s a real pro, like in all senses of the word. He’s never afraid to meet the media, he’s never afraid to have to talk about the tough things.
“There’s not a lot of those guys left, to be honest with you. In that regard he’s a rarity and that’s what he’s given us on our team for sure.”
Phaneuf is also not the same player he was when he signed his contract. He’s due to turn 33 in April and averaging the lowest ice time of his career – down two and a half minutes to 20:32 while playing primarily on a second pairing with Cody Ceci that takes on all kinds of water, possession-wise.
Any trade involving him would need to include retained salary and/or bloated contracts coming back in return, not unlike the nine-player deal that saw the Leafs send their captain to Ottawa on Feb. 9, 2016.
It has turned out be a great move for Phaneuf, all things considered.
The long playoff run last spring was the first time he played beyond the first round and stands as a career highlight. He and his wife like living in the city so much that Phaneuf declined to waive his no-movement clause to make himself available to Vegas in June’s expansion draft.
Now they’ve started a family there with the birth of daughter Zaphire just before Christmas.
For as much of a disaster as the first half has been – at 15-18-9, the Senators entered their bye week sitting second-last in the Eastern Conference – he’s lived through worse. Phaneuf spent parts of seven seasons with the Leafs and six of them ended outside the playoffs, sometimes spectacularly so.
Those experiences helped with his approach while Ottawa skidded through a 3-13-3 stretch after returning from Sweden in November.
“The thing is, when you’re not getting results and you struggle like the month and a half we had, it does wear on you as a player. But as a professional you have got to come and do your job,” said Phaneuf. “You’ve got to put the work in and you’ve got to work for your teammates because ultimately we’re the only ones that are going to get ourselves out of it. We’ve been open about it. I feel the group has really taken ownership of [the fact] ‘it’s on us, we haven’t played well enough.”’
They managed to leave Air Canada Centre with smiles after pulling out a 4-3 victory on Wednesday, bumping Ottawa’s head-to-head record with Toronto to 7-1-0 since the Phaneuf deal was completed.
As has been his custom, Phaneuf walked over to the Leafs dressing room after the game for a visit with members of the training staff and former teammates. He also made time for everyone who stopped him along the way.
“I’ll always remember Toronto and the way that the city treated me, coming back for the first game and the standing ovation. I mean those are things that I can’t even explain to you how they feel when you live it,” said Phaneuf. “These are big games. I’ve got to play on both sides of the Battle of Ontario. What a great thing to say.”