The Phaneuf Factor: Defender's Presence Improving Entire Leaf Blue Line

Jon NeelyAnalyst IFebruary 6, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 05:  Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up before playing the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 5, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When Brian Burke announced that the Toronto Maple Leafs had acquired Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames just a week ago, people immediately considered the Leafs defense improved. The 6'3", 214-pound behemoth of a blue-liner gives a physical presence that the team has not seen in a long time—as well as a lethal shot from the point.

His addition to the team meant an improved power play, a tougher presence in front of the net, and a glare that could melt chocolate. At just 24 years old, he has already been a Norris Trophy candidate and has the most goals in the league for a defenseman since 2005.

The talk was all about Phaneuf and how he makes the team better with his skill, strength, and toughness. But not many took the time to mention his effect on the guys he'd be playing with—and how soon that would take place.

Phaneuf is now three games into his Maple Leaf career, and the Leafs are 2-1—although it would be 3-0 if not for three or four terrible minutes in New Jersey on Friday night. He has looked much better than his play this season in Calgary, and the entire Leaf squad has noticeably improved.

There may be no more affected player than sophomore Luke Schenn, who has had what seems to be a rebirth since the arrival of his new teammate. In the three games with Phaneuf in the lineup, Schenn has not only been much more physical, but also has been a force offensively.

He has three points (all against Ottawa) and six shots and is a plus-three in that time while playing around 21 minutes per game. His minutes are down, but that might just be what the doctor ordered for Schenn this season, as it's been an up-and-down affair so far.

His confidence is sky-high, and it's clear that Phaneuf's arrival has lit a fire under the 20-year-old. Whether he's simply following the example that has been set or afraid of losing more ice time if his play doesn't pick up, Schenn has certainly played some of his best hockey in the past week.

Phaneuf's usual partner in crime during even-strength play so far has been Francois Beauchemin, who has had a solid season up to the time of Phaneuf's arrival and has benefited greatly from his new blue line buddy.

In the two games prior to Phaneuf coming to the team, Beauchemin had just two shots on net. In the three games since, he has five shots, including a power play goal (although scored while Phaneuf sat in the box), and has been a steady force on the back end.

He will undoubtedly be able to find more lanes to the net for his slap shot now that the opposition has to worry about two shooters from the point. It would not be surprising if Beauchemin ends the season by padding his goal total—thanks to the space he'll be allocated.

Another guy who has been stellar since Phaneuf set foot in Toronto has been Tomas Kaberle, who has arguably been the best defender on the team all season. Kaberle, the quarterback of the power play, instantly has a weapon to pass to that he hasn't had since the days of Brian McCabe in the blue and white.

Kaberle has some of the best hands in the league, especially when it comes to passing, and although it hasn't connected for a goal yet, it's only a matter of time before there is a Kaberle-Phaneuf one-timer connection for a goal.

If Kaberle ends up staying in Toronto for longer than this season, the two could form a dangerous chemistry that most teams would give anything for.

It's a new team in Toronto now, and Phaneuf is the main reason for that. Ever since he walked into the room on the first day and asked where the music was, it has been clear that Phaneuf's presence has changed the attitude of the entire team.

Sure, they're still in the "honeymoon" stage just three games in, but it is night and day when comparing the Leafs before his arrival with now.

Yes, his individual skills immediately make the team a better one; there is no arguing that. But it's becoming more clear as the games continue: Phaneuf has impacted the entire team as they follow his lead.

Actions speak louder than words: And luckily, Phaneuf brings both.

He had the word "work" written on the end of his stick Saturday night in the Leafs 5-0 win over the Senators—a word that not only signifies what the team has been doing a lot more of lately, but in the short time that he's been on the team, the Phaneuf factor is working out quite nicely.