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Stajan's moment; Dion Phaneuf a year later: How happy are Leaf fans?

How good must it have been for Matt Stajan Saturday night at the ACC?  A life-long Leaf fan, then player, from the GTA, comes back and scores what could have been the game-winner in a then scoreless gamein the third period.  It had to be huge.

Grabovski's line almost went a rare (this season) evening without scoring, but that was a big one with only seconds left.  The Leafs have pulled off these late-game heroics a few times and it has earned them some much-needed points.

It's hard to know if it took the Leafs a couple of periods to get their skating legs back after a very long road trip (12 shots was it, in the first two periods combined?)

Giguere came back from another long layoff and did his job, saving 32 shots as Calgary had the upper hand in the first two periods.  Phanuef led everyone on both teams, playing more than 28 minutes. Wilson utilized Bozak a ton, too, among the forwards.

That first game back after being on the road is often tough.  Still, they earned a point with a big third period.

I think it’s fair to say that when Brian Burke obtained Dion Phaneuf in a trade almost a full year ago, ,Leaf fans were stunned—and thrilled.

They felt—and I certainly believed—that Phaneuf, at 24, was a huge acquisition.  (The fact that the deal was announced and had not been rumored or leaked ahead of time made it all the more fun.)  A one-time NHL end-of-season All-Star, Phaneuf brought pugnacity and some offensive skill, including a big shot, to Toronto.

I was among those who felt the Leafs did not give up a lot—all good players but none that they could not move forward without.  Normally, to get a first-pairing d-man, you have to give up a ton, and the Leafs simply did not.

We knew Phaneuf brought, if not baggage, exactly, maybe an attitude that may not have made him the easiest of guys to have as a teammate in Calgary.  Current Flames will deny it publicly, but even Mike Keenan (the ex-Flames coach) has spoken on this subject.  That players don’t hug all the time in between games, though, is no shock, so getting Phaneuf seemed to more than compensate for any personality or maturity issues he may also bring to the party.

Yes, you want a guy who can fit in, but at the end of the day, you want a guy who can play, right?  So we waited, and watched as the Leaf season wound down last year.

In the off-season, we were told he was a great presence in the Leaf dressing room, bringing in his music and chatter.  So high were Burke and company that, as I (and I’m sure many others) had forecast from the day he arrived, he was going to be the next Leaf captain.  That came to pass this past summer.

Leaf enthusiasts were expecting that, with a new season upon us, Phaneuf would re-establish himself as a top NHL defenseman.  He would bring fire, passion, whatever you want to call it. That big shot, too.  And yes, that much over-used word:  truculence.

The proof, of course, is always in the pudding itself.

I posted recently, and will again until I see otherwise, that Phaneuf leaves me wanting more.  Is this fair?  Perhaps not.  But he has not been, for example,  as tough as I thought.  It’s just little things I notice, hard to explain.  But I don’t see fear in the opposition when he is on the ice.  Fear is usually created when the other guys know they may get hammered—-in open ice, along the boards or in front of the net.

Is he an offensive point-producer?  Well, he has a big shot, but we’re not exactly seeing Al Macinnis here. Not that we should expect that, but one goal, 44 games into the season seems, well, a bit of an under-achievement for a guy with a big bomb who gets power-play time.

Is he a big ‘plus’ player on the season?  No, he’s actually a minus player so far, though not badly so.

So I’m not sure what to make of this young defenseman, who will turn 26 in April.  Is he taking one step back these last couple of years to eventually take two steps forward?  Is he just going through the normal steps of becoming a high-end NHL defenseman?

Or have we seen what Phaneuf is—a guy with size, some skating ability, a bit of everything but someone who is not really elite at anything?

Is he going to be an All-Star again, or just a decent to good NHL defenseman?  Is he worth 6 million a year—or 3?

Is he a true leader?  A guy others will follow?  Or is he mostly, well, loud?

Questions, a lot of questions and I don’t have the answers.  I’m not sure if anyone does, yet.

Most players have really good games where we see them at their best and others where they struggle.  But I'm talking about how Phaneuf, from an overall perspective, has played this season.

I’d be interested to hear differing opinions on whether you like what Phaneuf is bringing to the Leafs—or whether he has been a bit of a disappointment.



  1. Nice site Michael, Trade you links

  2. Thanks Rod. Just visited your site. Wonderful stuff. I will work on that link tomorrow (Monday). Thanks for taking the time to write.

  3. Nice article!

    I was also thrilled when I heard the Leafs had acquired Phaneuf - I remember watching him in the WJC and in his early days as a Flame and thinking "man, why can't the Leafs ever draft someone like that?" The relatively low return was an added plus.

    Now, a year later? Obviously Phaneuf hasn't blown anyone's mind, although the Leafs' poor play when he was injured suggests he brings a lot behind the scenes where we can't see it.

    As to his on-ice play, I think the most maddening part of it is that we can SEE that he has all the tools to be a great defenseman - hard shot, big hits, speed - yet he manages to attach a caveat to all of those skills. He misses the net with his big shot, his hits put him out of position, and in spite of his speed he often gets burned to the outside by opposing forwards. Like I said... maddening!

    All that said, he is only 25. There is plenty of time for him to fix all of those flaws in his game. Hopefully it happens and all comes together around the same time that the Leafs are ready to make a serious run!

  4. I agree with you that he has more to offer, and I'm willing to wait a bit longer for it to arrive. There is a huge upside here with Dion, and like you said they did not give up much. He has all the tools, no doubt, but will he turn the corner into elite status? We shall see. I am not on the 'Dion is a bust' bandwagon, and others should not be.....yet.


  5. I am not sure if Dion will ever be all that he was suppposed to be. I don't remember what Pronger looked like at 25 but I have a feeling that it was better than what we are seeing.

    Not to make excuses but the injury Dion suffered was quite severe ... I believe the skate severed muscle and tendons. The blade cut him deep enough to expose bone. There is absolutely no way that any person can return from that kind of injury 100% in such a short time. Dion's skating looks particularly weak right now (remember the Simmons goal?) - that is the product of returning to the ice after suffering a dehabilitating injury. Dion will not return to 100% until a lengthy offseason rehab program is completed.