The evolution of captain Phaneuf

Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf puts his game face on during the warmup before facing the Sabres...

Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf puts his game face on during the warmup before facing the Sabres at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Sep. 27, 2010. (Abelimages/Getty Images/AFP)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:17 AM ET

TORONTO - When Dion Phaneuf sheds the “C” for the summer and gets away from everything Toronto Maple Leafs, he still likes to work on his shot.

But while the captain is hunkered down at his Prince Edward Island retreat, this aiming exercise has nothing to do with hockey.

When his big boss, general manager Brian Burke, made the trip to Atlantic Canada this past summer for a social call, the two took part in one of Phaneuf’s favourite off-season pastimes.

“We did a few different things, nothing crazy,” Phaneuf said Wednesday. “Shot some skeet and relaxed, it was the summer.

“I enjoy (skeet shooting) for the sport of it. I’ve been doing it for a while.

“Really, we’re not talking about hockey the whole time. We’re there to hang out. (Burke has) been doing it for a long time, visiting his captain in the summer and I enjoyed having him out there. We had a good time.”

The P.E.I. experience has been Phaneuf’s tonic for several off-seasons now. His waterfront spread not far from touristy Cavendish is as peaceful as it is private, factors high on his summer wish list.

“I go there to get away, to re-charge and get ready for another season,” Phaneuf said after another two-hour practice as NHL training camp excruciatingly moves towards an Oct. 6 start to the regular season.

“I like the pace of life. I’m out in the country and out on the water by myself. I enjoy it and it helps me feel really good to start the year.”

From Phaneuf’s perspective, year two of his captaincy won’t bring any measurable changes personally or professionally, in terms of the way he approaches the game.

Phaneuf says he is always working on improving and is optimistic changes in the Leafs room will be for the better overall. While it’s reasonable to expect Phaneuf’s leadership style will evolve, his point is there is no reason to expect a big-bang moment.

“I’m very comfortable in the role and I enjoy being the leader of this team,” Phaneuf said.

“Experience is everything. Last year was my first as captain and I was learning a lot and I’m still going to learn a lot. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and I’m looking forward to the next.”

If Phaneuf is playing it cool with his position on this team, there is certainly nothing wrong with that mature approach. But his bosses believe there are signs of evolution in their captain.

Vice president of hockey operations, Dave Poulin, is certainly an authoritative observer given he was a long-time captain during his playing career. While wearing the “C” in Toronto is considered a weighty assignment, consider that in just his second year in the NHL, Poulin succeeded hall of famer Bobby Clarke in the role with the Philadelphia Flyers.

“It seems pretty innate with Dion,” Poulin said on Wednesday. “His relationship with (Leafs management) has grown. Just the conversations we would have are much different than a year ago.

“It takes a little time to figure it out and you can’t accelerate the process. Certain things have to happen. Maybe it’s going through a difficult losing stretch. Maybe it’s challenges inside the locker room. Maybe it’s the highs of a winning stretch.

“And then you have to go through a complete summer off to let all of those things sink in.”

Phaneuf certainly went through a wide range of experiences in his first year as captain.

It started with the very public ceremony when he was named captain, perhaps looking a little uncomfortable on stage alongside some of his predecessors in the position. Leafs management took their time arriving at the Phaneuf captaincy, keeping the position vacant for two full seasons after Mats Sundin left town, which only added to the scrutiny of the Phaneuf annointment.

The growing pains for the captain and his team carried on through an awful November and December on the ice, including a nasty injury to Phaneuf, which he has hinted he may have returned from too quickly.

Things took a turn for the better in the new year, an impressive rally that has created a healthy dose of optimism heading into the new season.

Phaneuf says in the 14 months or so since he became a lettered man, he has become more comfortable with the public speaking engagements that go with the territory.

And perhaps more importantly, he has no intention of carrying the leadership load himself.

“I don’t find it a heavy job,” Phaneuf said. “I think we’ve got great leadership in our room. It’s not just the guys wearing the letter. That’s what makes good teams.

“I’ve said that two years ago, I’m not going to change who I am and I’m not going to change how I play.”

Poulin agrees that complementary leadership on any team is any captain’s greatest ally.

In Philly, he had it with veterans such as Bill Barber and the late Brad McCrimmon. In Toronto, Poulin cites players as Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles as two whose leadership will rub off on the young Leafs.

In replacing a legend in Philadelphia, Poulin learned quickly that changing your personality or your game is likely the worst plan of attack.

Anything forced or contrived would come across exactly as such.

“You have to read a situation quickly, read people quickly,” Poulin said. “You have to know when a teammate needs support or a kick in the (butt.)

“A lot of guys try to change, but you have to be yourself and adjust to the situations.

“A written script in this gig doesn’t work.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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