TORONTO – Dion Phaneuf felt no first-day jitters and showed no signs of hesitation.
Instead, he walked into the locker-room at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility on Monday morning and made himself right at home.
“He’s got a swagger about him that we’ll encourage,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “That will rub off on our other guys. He walked into the dressing room, (said) ‘where’s the music’ and fired it right up, right away, without worrying about what anybody else said.”
In the wake of one of the largest single-day shakeups in team history, that must have been music to general manager Brian Burke’s ears.
The pair of blockbuster trades he engineered a day earlier were about changing the culture inside the dressing room as a means to getting a better performance on the ice.
There was certainly a different feel around the Leafs at Monday’s practice. Not only were there three new players being put through drills – Phaneuf, goaltender J.S. Giguere and winger Fredrik Sjostrom – but the dressing room stalls formally occupied by the six departed guys all sat empty.
The massive overhaul caught everyone by surprise.
“I’ve seen a lot of things happen in my career, but I’ve never seen that,” said veteran forward Wayne Primeau. “That’s a lot of guys. I talked to Jason Blake and he said it was a weird feeling when he came in the dressing room yesterday. He said it kind of felt like the end of the season where there was six bags in the middle of the dressing room.
“You don’t see that too often.”
Primeau spent parts of three seasons playing alongside Phaneuf in Calgary and clearly has some rapport with the 24-year-old defenceman.
The pair chatted during breaks in practice on Monday and playfully jostled with one another from time to time.
“He’s a vocal kid, very confident,” said Primeau.
The new-look Leafs will all be on display with New Jersey in town on Tuesday (TSN, 7 p.m. ET).
Giguere is pegged to get the start in goal and will be wearing the No. 35 that formally belonged to Vesa Toskala, one of the players sent to Anaheim in exchange for him. Phaneuf will be wearing his familiar No. 3 – Garnet Exelby gave it up and switched to No. 7 – while Sjostrom will have on No. 11.
The team is expected to call up another forward from the American Hockey League.
Wilson fully expects all the newcomers to be jacked up for their Maple Leaf debuts. In the case of Phaneuf, the coach predicted that he’ll try to throw some big hits and bring an “intimidation factor” the team has been missing.
“I would think that New Jersey coming in tomorrow, the first thing they’re going to say (is): ‘Geez guys, anybody with their head down, you better get it up because you’re going to get levelled,”‘ said Wilson. “We haven’t had that real open ice hitting threat. I’m sure most of the teams in the Western Conference are going: ‘Wow, thank God he’s not here anymore.’
“Every night, Dion lays one or two or three guys out. He plays very aggressive.”
The arrival of the new players generated plenty of buzz in a city that seemed to be losing some interest in the Maple Leafs. The 29th-place team quickly found itself back on the radar, with as many media members at practice as there had been in months.
Phaneuf, once a finalist for the Norris Trophy, is likely to be the most-closely scrutinized. A cornerstone of the Flames franchise just a couple seasons ago, he experienced some struggles in recent years and fell out of favour with many in Calgary.
On his first day in Toronto, he was in no mood to look back on what went wrong with his former team.
“That’s in the past, to be honest with you,” said Phaneuf. “I’ve moved forward pretty quickly. I’m a Toronto Maple Leaf and I’m looking forward to getting it started tomorrow.
“It’s been a very exciting day and a half.”
The overall excitement could be seen on the ice during practice.
Most of the players were out skating a good 10 or 15 minutes before the session was scheduled to begin and many of them stuck around long after it officially ended. The changes brought some life to a team that is winless in six games and had a 3-10-2 record in January.
“When new guys come to the team, they always bring new energy,” said goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. “I think we got that today … I felt like it was a new atmosphere out there. It was more happy and more positive.
“Everybody just had fun out there and tried to work hard.”
Giguere had to waive a no-trade clause to facilitate his deal and is looking forward to the chance to play in a more traditional hockey market than Anaheim.
His first impressions of life as a Maple Leaf were positive.
“You can tell it’s a young team,” said Giguere. “I really liked what I saw this morning on the ice. I thought guys had a lot of jump (and) were pretty upbeat.
“To be honest, I don’t know much else about the Leafs.”
Phaneuf had a similar sentiment.
“All I know from right now is that there’s a great facility here and a really good bunch of guys,” said Phaneuf. “(They were) all very pleasant, very outgoing. I’ve never done this before, never been a part of a trade (and) every guy was very welcoming.
“I’m looking forward to fitting in here.”