WASHINGTON D.C. – As head coach of the San Jose Sharks, Ron Wilson used to target a certain explosive and often untamed defenceman from the Calgary Flames.
"In San Jose, we used to kind of take advantage when Dion was on the ice," Wilson said, following practice on Thursday. "We scored a lot of goals when he was on the ice. He got a lot of hits, but we scored a lot of goals."
Once a bombastic blueliner searching for the big hit, Dion Phaneuf
has gradually evolved into a safer, smarter version of his former self, one not entirely consumed by the quantity of bone-crunching collisions.
"He's not running around looking for big hits," Wilson said of the shift in Phaneuf's game from those early days with the Flames. "Hits don't add up to anything in the standings; there's not a column for hits, although some [in the media] talk about how many hits somebody had as having a big impact on the game. There are certain nights it does, but most nights it's who scores the most goals wins the game, not who has the most hits. Trying to get Dion to understand that I think has been a bit of a process."
The stats lay claim to Wilson's assessment.
As a rookie in 2005-2006, Phaneuf finished third amongst all defencemen in hits (203), followed by seventh (197)and sixth (194) the next two years. Over the course of the following four seasons, he dropped out of the top ten entirely, 12th last season (186) and 26th so far in 2011-2012. Less inclined to chase the big hit, Phaneuf has steadily grown into a stable shutdown defenceman for the Leafs, one capable of logging over 25 minutes a game, consistently against the opposition's best line.
"I think it's his positioning and patience with his physical play that's enabled him to do a better job defensively," Wilson said, also noting Phaneuf's improved use of the stick and general disinclination for chasing the puck in the defensive zone. "I think a lot of it has to do with what we've told him, our likes and dislikes."
Wilson also attributes Phaneuf's more recent evolution to subtle changes in the rulebook, specifically Rule 48 in which "targeted" hits to the head are not permitted, although allowed if the opponent puts himself in a "vulnerable" position.
"This year in particular, the rules kind of in a way discourage the kind of hits that Dion used to be looking for," Wilson said, "those open-ice hits in the neutral zone where he might've come up a little bit higher. Rather than get caught in those situations I think he's dialed it down a little bit. He nails guys closer to the boards who have their head down. He's not leaping into the hits anymore."
Such an example was made thunderously clear at Madison Square Garden on Monday night; Phaneuf delivered a devastating left shoulder to the head of Rangers defenceman Michael Sauer
, a legal hit which drew no call.
In conversation with the Leaf Report on Thursday afternoon, Phaneuf conceded to working on "little things in the defensive zone that make the game easier" during the course of his NHL career, specifically a more active stick.
"I think the biggest thing from when you start to now," he said, "is how you use your stick. You look at the top [defencemen] in the league; they've all got real good sticks. I think that's something that comes with experience and something that I've definitely worked over the last few years and I feel a lot better about in my game.
"The game's changed from then 'til now so there's lots different in that aspect. Every year it seems to get faster. But like I said, the biggest thing from when I started 'til now is probably my stick and where it's positioned and that's something that I've had to work on and I feel good about."
Phaneuf was dominant in October alongside partner Carl Gunnarsson
, totaling 11 points and a plus-7 rating, while logging nearly 27 minutes a game. Those numbers dipped in November (7 points, minus-7, 25 minutes a game), something Wilson attributes to an influx of inexperienced players in the lineup, although it was evident that at times Phaneuf did struggle.
Offensively, he's picked up right where he left off in the second half last season. Phaneuf has 18 points through the opening 28 games, on pace for the second highest total (52) of his career (60 in 2007-2008). He's not scored as much as in the past (three goals), but piled up assists (15) instead. "From when I started 'til now, the biggest thing is when the shot's not there, I'm looking for a shot-pass more than when I started," he said, upon some reflection. "I feel like I move the puck probably more than when I started; [In the past] I'd shoot the puck maybe more into situations that might get blocked. But that's also changed from when I started 'til now; the amount of shots blocked is crazy. The guys are in the lanes a lot more and a lot more willing to block shots from seven years ago 'til now."
Now in his second full season with the Leafs – also second as captain – Phaneuf generally looks and acts the part of a more refined leader, from his dealings with the media to his outward enthusiasm and volume amongst teammates. Despite a glut of injuries in November, the Leafs still somehow managed to post a 7-6-1 record, proof of depth within the organization certainly, but also leadership keyed by Phaneuf within the room.
The fohawk and brash exterior of his Calgary days have quieted at an age when defenceman generally graduate to their NHL peaks.
"It's a process," he concluded. "I'm sure you can ask guys that have played 1200 games, they still want to get better. You stop improving, you stop getting better, you kind of plateau. I definitely am working on both ends of the rink and both sides of the game, but I feel I've grown in both areas.
"I just want to keep improving. I want to keep getting better. I want to contribute in whatever way that I can to help this team win games and that's the bottom line. Personal statistics, to be honest with you, I'd take less personal stats for us to win hockey games. That's all that matters."