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Phaneuf: a little bit like a lot of old Leafs

The jury is out on Dion Phaneuf.  Leaf fans hope that he will consistently be the tough, skilled, end-of-season All-Star he was with Calgary a few short seasons ago.

Some Calgary fans are of the view that that bus has already left the station.

We’re still just really getting to know the new Leaf captain.  His performance at the end of last season was by and large pretty strong, but hardly provided assurances that he would regain his earlier career form.  But he is talented, he is rugged— and he is loud.

And he has been anointed team captain by management, who dearly want him to be the type of leader and impact defender that Burke envisions.

So who is Dion Phaneuf as a player?  We’re certainly going to find out about his tangible assets in the months to come— and some intangible characteristics as well.

For now, I’m thinking about Phaneuf and piecing together in my mind what he brings to the table and how certain attributes of some Leaf defensemen I’ve watched over the past 50 years remind me in some small way of the current Leaf captain.

In terms of strength, he reminds me somewhat of long-time Leaf stalwart Tim Horton.  Horton (photo at right) was far from a fighter, but he was incredibly strong, probably the strongest man in hockey along with Gordie Howe in the 1950s and 1960s.

Horton also had a powerful slapshot, but in that area I think more of Phaneuf in relation to, say, Al Iafrate.  In the late 1980s, Iafrate had the kind of rare talent that made me think he was going to be a Leaf for years to come.  Among his assets was that very long reach, elite skating ability and a powerful slapshot—one of the hardest of his era.  Phaneuf may not shoot quite as hard as Iafrate, but hopefully he will have Iafrate’s impact on the power play.

In terms of fighting prowess, he brings to mind an old-time Leaf, Kent Douglas.  Douglas was memorable because he was a late-life (meaning he wasn’t one of those 20 year-old superstars)  rookie of the year for the Maple Leafs in the early 1960s, winning the NHL's Calder Trophy.  He played an important "backup" role on the blueline,  helping Punch Imlach and the Leafs off and on as a “5th” defenseman” (like a 7th defenseman nowadays) through their good run in the 1960s.

 Douglas was one of the only guys in the league who sometimes wore that glare-resistant stuff under his eyes, like football players (photo at left).  He was a dependable player in his own zone and rock solid physically, the kind of guy who didn’t back down and stood up for his teammates.  In the fighting department, he took on the toughest guys in hockey in the NHL and in the minor leagues, too.

In terms of Phaneuf’s hitting ability, Bobby Baun springs to mind.  Baun is most famous in Leaf lore for that overtime winner on a broken ankle in Game 6 of the 1964 Cup finals in Detroit.  But throughout his steady NHL career, he was known especially for his ability to handle the league’s best wingers and to stand up players with tough, open-ice hits, something Phaneuf can deliver (like his hit on Emmerton in the third period Friday night) in this day and age.

Looking ahead, one can only hope the young captain will wear the Maple Leaf crest like Todd Gill, who struggled in his early years in blue and white but became a dependable rearguard who wore the sweater with pride.

It would be great, too, if Phaneuf’s game over time morphed into the “less is more” category, like Sylvain Lefebvre, another of Pat Burns’ solid minute-men on the Leaf blueline during that short-lived period of minor glory in 1993 and ’94.

Mostly, of course, Leaf fans want Dion to not feel like he has to do too much.  Just be himself— on and off the ice. 

A good guy, good teammate, good player.

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