The Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a great 5-1-1 start, and while everyone is marveling over the production of star forward Phil Kessel, what may be even more promising is the play of Dion Phaneuf, who has returned to his previous fearsome form.
Through seven games, the Leafs' captain has the best stats in the league for a blue-liner: nine points, plus-six, 14 hits.
So what’s changed?
A fair and common criticism of Phaneuf tenure thus far in the Blue and White is that he has tried to do too much.
He tried to shoot the puck too hard and wound up missing the net far too much.
He tried to line up opponents so blatantly that he would completely miss, end up out of position and the opposition would score.
Every Leaf fan knows this only too well.
Throughout the travails, and definitely adding to the frustration of Toronto fans, Phaneuf continued to insist that he had never changed since his 20-goal rookie year.
In his defense, we must say, Phaneuf’s underwhelming play was compounded by playing on teams that simply were not very good.Thus, it is no coincidence that his improved play goes hand in hand with a Toronto Maple Leafs team that appears to have plugged some of its most glaring shortcomings.
The offensive prowess of new defender John-Michael Liles certainly takes some pressure off Phaneuf to always be the one to make a dazzling play from the back end.
The consistently excellent play of forward Joffrey Lupul makes the Leafs' first line (whoever may be centering it) look, well, like a first line.
This multiplies Phaneuf's options on the power play while making his job of breaking out of the defensive zone so much easier.
Indeed, in the latter situation, Phaneuf has looked supremely confident.
Lastly, playing in front of goaltender James Reimer, whom the Leafs love to go to war for, may be the most bountiful factor.
Add it all up and the conditions for Phaneuf to thrive/return to form are better than they have ever been in Toronto.
Regardless of whether he himself has recovered or if it was the team around him that is again allowing him to do his thing, the reincarnation of Dion Phaneuf is a big reason the Leafs are sitting on top of the Northeast Division.
Yes, the season is early yet. Despite the success of the Leafs out of the gate, it would be going out on a limb to say that the club is guaranteed a playoff spot.
That said, if Phaneuf and his teammates continue to prove they have solidly paved over their deficiencies, allowing each to play according to their strengths, not only will the club be set to enjoy a climb in the rankings, but also the 26-year-old defender will again be whispered about as Norris trophy material.