TORONTO - As a defenceman not shy about dishing out punishment to opposing forwards, Dion Phaneuf is at home in front of his own net.
This season, the Maple Leafs captain is being asked to do some hard time in front of the opposition goalkeeper as well and take some of those same shots he loves to give.
It’s all in the name of the re-vamped Leafs power play which includes the option of Phaneuf sneaking in from the point on occasion to create havoc in the form of screens, rebounds and deflections.
“We’ve been working on different things — we don’t want to be a one-dimensional power play,” Phaneuf said Tuesday following a 90-minute practice at the Mastercard Centre. “The biggest thing is you look at the real good power plays in he league and everyone’s moving, everyone’s in different positions.
“We’re going to have to fill some spots on the ice and I think that’s why we’ve had some success in the pre-season when we’re moving as a group.”
After having one of the worst power plays in the history of the league last season — clicking at less than 14% — the Leafs had to do something. In the pre-season anyway, it worked out just fine as that percentage has been bumped up to in the 30% range with leading scorer Phil Kessel scored four times with the man advantage.
Expanding Phaneuf’s role in the power play has worked so far, albeit in situations where the Leafs weren’t always facing big-league penalty killing units. His big shot can work from the point while his big body can work from the front of the opposition net.
“A big part of my game is to shoot the puck, but getting (in front of the net) is part of it too,” Phaneuf said. “I played there a lot in Calgary and ever since I was in junior. When you are in front of the net, your job is to not have the goalie see the puck. Whether you screen the goalie or the puck goes off of you, something good is going to happen.”
At Tuesday’s practice, the Leafs spent plenty of time working on the power play, both with the top forward unit of Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Kris Versteeg and the second three of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
“I think it’s just guys getting open and going out there and working harder than the other team’s penalty kill,” Versteeg said.
From coach Ron Wilson’s perspective, the Leafs had become too predictable with the man advantage. If the opposing penalty kill has all day to set up for a Phaneuf blast or know where Kessel likes to attack from, the danger factor of the power play diminished significantly.
“People just won’t be able to say: ‘Dion is just going to be on the right point taking one timers,’ ” Wilson said. “You don’t know where he is.
“Phil Kessel is not going to be glued to the mid board as he has in the past. Shutting down the power play, people like to know where your players are and their tendencies and we’re trying to change that up.
“I hope in the real games, guys continue to move around and are hard to find.”