Phaneuf has the ability to change a game

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:04 PM ET

Seven minutes in to Dion Phaneuf’s new life as a Maple Leaf and already there was a big hit, a bad punch, and a fight worth remembering.

The unofficial Chris Pronger hat trick.

It was a beginning to remember. A beginning worth pointing to, maybe looking back at one day. When does a team change its fortunes? How does a team do it?

Bill Polian, the Super Bowl general manager, told Brian Burke when he took over the Maple Leafs that the hardest thing to do in sports is alter the culture of any team. For a year and some, Burke has been stewing about altering the Leafs culture of entitlement with a hockey team that’s seem satisfied going nowhere.

Phil Kessel is a goal scorer but he’s not the kind of impact player that can change a team. He isn’t built that way. But Phaneuf made instant impact in his first game as a Leaf.

With a lesser lineup around him than he has ever seen in his National Hockey League career, the Leaf players seemed just a touch faster, a touch braver, a touch smarter, a touch more practical in their first night together.

This may only be one night — and let’s be honest, it will be darn near impossible for the Leafs to compete nightly with this thin a group of forwards — but it may mark something for the future.

It provides a glimpse of why the Leafs traded four players away to bring Phaneuf to Toronto and what, if it all works out, he may be capable of. It’s only a glimpse, but then, you have to walk before he can run.

You watch Phaneuf in his first appearance in blue and white and in a 60-minute debut you see the whole package, the good, the bad, the ugly, and more good. You see why he was a first team all-star just a few years ago — something no Leaf defenceman has been since Borje Salming was voted in 33 years ago — you see what he can do physically; you see he doesn’t just hit people he punishes them; you see occasionally he gambles and jumps into a play he shouldn’t but more than anything you see him.

He makes a difference. Some guys play their whole careers without impacting anything. Some defenceman are happy to never be noticed. Phaneuf wants to be noticed. He wants the hit, the puck, the big stage. He doesn’t want to be just another guy on another losing team.

Already last night coach Ron Wilson gave a hint as to how he is going to employ Phaneuf. He is going to play him and then play him some more. He missed some power play time last night because he happened to be in the penalty box for fighting Colin White. White had jumped in to defend Zach Parise. This is why the Leafs wanted Phaneuf so badly. He targeted the best player on the New Jersey Devils to hit. And he gave him a good one, not long after introducing himself to his centreman, Travis Zajak.

The history of the Leafs and high-end defencemen is rather thin. Of the 17 banners of players honoured at the Air Canada Centre, only three played only defence. Salming was the last great defenceman in Toronto, before that Tim Horton. Those now seem like ancient times. And maybe Phaneuf can’t be a first or second team all-star but he can make begin a turnaround for a hockey team and a hockey city so desperately in need of something to believe in.

Phaneuf didn’t score the goals last night, didn’t make the saves that J-S Giguere took care of, didn’t pass the puck with the aplomb a group of undermanned forwards did. But maybe it comes back to what Wayne Primeau talked about the other day. In all his years in hockey he’d never seen six bags from outgoing players sitting in the middle of the Leafs dressing room.

The culture change has begun. This was just one night, but a night to remember for Phaneuf and the Leafs.


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