TORONTO – Dion Phaneuf is never shy about making himself heard.
The defenceman has played just 16 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and already carries a big voice in the team’s dressing room. Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise given how much talking he does.
“I’m pretty sure he wakes up screaming at six in the morning,” rookie forward Viktor Stalberg said after Monday’s practice. “I don’t know how he does it. I’m still in a half coma until I take a shower in the morning. I’m pretty sure he wakes up screaming at people.”
It’s become a constant soundtrack for this Maple Leafs team. Whether it’s a practice day or game day, whether players are on the ice or in the dressing room, Phaneuf’s voice is never far away.
Coach Ron Wilson believes the 24-year-old has had a major influence on a young locker-room and cites that as one of the big reasons the team has reeled off victories in six of its last seven games.
“We’re a lot louder on the ice,” said Wilson. “You hear people yelling for passes and doing little things. He makes it fun to be out there. I appreciate that because it makes practice go by faster, it’s a lot more intense out there because he does everything hard.
“He’s very demanding of his teammates to practice hard, too. So they all kind of fall in line.”
The perception of Phaneuf has clearly changed since the Jan. 31 trade that brought him from Calgary to Toronto. The strong personality he’s now being praised for used to rub some the wrong way over four-plus years with the Flames.
Phaneuf has certainly enjoyed the change of scenery.
“I feel a lot better to be completely honest with you,” he said. “Like I said when I got here, it’s a very exciting time for me, a fresh start. I feel real good again out there.
“There’s been lots of positives.”
When the Leafs gathered for their annual team photo on Monday, Phaneuf found himself in the front row alongside the team’s other leaders. He currently wears the ‘A’ that belongs to injured defenceman Mike Komisarek.
There is growing speculation that Phaneuf is poised to become the next team captain, a position that has been vacant since Mats Sundin left Toronto in the summer of 2008.
Given his status in the locker-room and affinity for the situation, it looks like there could be a fit.
“I love the organization, I love the city, I love the team here,” said Phaneuf. “The guys have been great right from Day 1 in accepting me into the room with open arms.
“It’s an exciting team to be a part of – we’re young, we’re fast, we work hard, right now we just want to keep winning games and try and move up in the standings.”
They’ll have a chance to make up ground on one of the team’s they’re chasing when they host Florida on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET). Toronto sits last in the Eastern Conference, four points behind Tampa, Carolina and the New York Islanders and five behind the Panthers.
The Leafs have been trending upwards since GM Brian Burke shipped 25 per cent of his roster out of town in a pair of deals, one of which landed Phaneuf. They’ve gone 9-6-1 since.
Many inside the dressing room don’t think it’s a coincidence.
“Dion’s a real positive influence,” said forward Christian Hanson, who occupies the stall beside Phaneuf. “He comes in and he’s just always talking, always getting the guys going. I definitely think it rubs off.
“You just look at how the team’s been doing since he got here. The energy’s really picked up.”
Phaneuf readily acknowledges that he’s a chatterbox and makes no apologies for it. He considers it one of the many qualities he brings.
“I think communication’s huge, whether it’s in the room or on the ice,” said Phaneuf. “That’s just the way I am. (But) I don’t just lead in that way, I’d like to think.
“I try to be a guy who leads by example and plays hard shift after shift, night after night.”
At least one of Phaneuf’s teammates wouldn’t mind if he started to take the odd break – from talking, anyway.
“If you find a spot where he doesn’t talk that much let me know because I might want to go there sometime,” joked Stalberg.