Johnston on Leafs: Phaneuf maturing into role

Dion Phaneuf becomes a free agent after the 2013-14 season. (CP photo)

TAMPA, Fla. — The other day Dion Phaneuf was talking about perception.

He marveled at Alex Ovechkin’s strange journey from superstar to declining talent to superstar again. From Phaneuf’s perspective, all that had really changed about the Washington Capitals captain over the last few years was the way he was viewed within the hockey world.

In his eyes, Ovechkin had remained a talented and dangerous opponent the entire time.

As Phaneuf casually spoke about the league’s goal-scoring leader with a couple of reporters under the warm Florida sun, it was hard not to think about the parallels to his own situation.

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The Toronto Maple Leafs captain still seems to receive mixed reviews from fans and observers despite the fact he’s about to close out arguably his best NHL season yet. No one else played more minutes or bigger minutes for the Leafs than him. Just one year after being voted the league’s most overrated player by his peers, Phaneuf might actually be one of its more underrated.

He is, in the words of teammate John-Michael Liles, a “polarizing figure.”

And he’s got a unique chance to change some opinions with the playoffs looming. This is the time of year when reputations are made (or remade) and Phaneuf is currently the most important player in Toronto not named James Reimer.

“For certain people, (the post-season) is a fresh opportunity or a chance to make a name for yourself,” Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul astutely observed Tuesday.

He believes whole-heartedly that Phaneuf has what it takes to be one of those guys.

The Toronto players have seen a different — almost understated — side of their captain this season. The big defenceman has simplified his play on the ice and toned down his approach in the dressing room.

“The biggest thing with Dion I think is maybe less is more,” said Liles.

He’s truly set an example for Randy Carlyle’s squad.

“I think he’s played at a higher level this year than probably he has in the past,” said Lupul. “I know he’s taken on the responsibility of more minutes, playing against the other team’s (top players). He’s a guy that plays hard and is involved in the game every night.

“I think the No. 1 key to leadership is to do it by your actions and he’s certainly doing that this year.”

You won’t get much in the way of introspection from Phaneuf, who seems completely unfazed by any opinions — good or bad — expressed about him from afar. However, his observations about Ovechkin and how fickle the world of professional sports can be seem to illustrate that he understands why it’s important to tune out the chatter.

There is a certain amount of maturity inherent with that approach.

It can be seen elsewhere too.

It was Phaneuf who could be heard asking Carlyle to expand on the instructions for a drill during Tuesday’s practice at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. He also later sang the praises of the highly unusual 8:15 a.m. session to reporters.

There is clearly a level of buy-in that has included his willingness to play the more conservative brand of defensive hockey Carlyle demands.

While Phaneuf acknowledges that he has grown more confident in his role as captain over time, he also credits his teammates for helping take the “load off” with their contributions in the dressing room.

“Leadership is not just the guys that are wearing the letters; it’s collectively as a group,” he said.

There has been no thought to giving Phaneuf a rest in any of the three games left in the regular season, starting with Wednesday’s visit to the Lightning.

After logging the NHL’s eighth-heaviest workload — an average of 25:24 per — he’s too valuable to take out. And while Carlyle said he’d like to try and cut back on his minutes in those games, he was pretty non-committal about actually seeing that plan through.

Once the playoffs start next week, Phaneuf’s minutes will almost certainly jump. Perhaps even considerably.

Carlyle is a notorious line matcher and he’ll look to have Phaneuf and partner Carl Gunnarsson out in every key situation. It’s an important task, especially in a pressure-packed playoff environment where Phaneuf learned earlier in his career that “every little mistake is magnified.”

It’s amazing what kind of difference a year can make.

Many criticized Phaneuf when last year’s Leafs team collapsed down the stretch and missed out on the playoffs. For some, it was sign the team lacked leadership — a notion that isn’t being bandied about much anymore.

“When things are going well, the captain really doesn’t get all of the accolades,” said Carlyle. “When things don’t go as well, they point fingers. The first guy that’s got a bullseye on the back is the captain.”

The disappointment of last season lingered long into the summer for Phaneuf and his teammates. They stewed over it and vowed to be better — a promise they’ve managed to deliver on.

“It just wasn’t a good year, that’s the bottom line,” said Phaneuf. “We just didn’t get it done. We didn’t play well enough. There were a lot of things that happened during the year.”

Like a poor outdated reputation, it has been left in the past now.

In time, the wider view of Phaneuf is bound to change for the positive as well. His rock-steady play should warrant it.

After all, it’s worth remembering that Phaneuf is now approaching the end of his eighth NHL season — he’ll appear in his 600th career game against Montreal Saturday night — and turned 28 earlier this month.

Clearly, he is now a veteran in the NHL and a lot of good seems to have come with age.

“I think that’s what we call the maturing of a player,” said Carlyle. “I think there’s a lot of time we push young players into situations. He was the best possible candidate when the selection was made for him to be the captain (in 2010).

“Being the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a lot different than being the captain in any other market.”

The role and the man are now skating in stride.

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