Dion Phaneuf's natural influence driving the Ottawa Senators

Justin Cuthbert

Dion Phaneuf has a few of the traits normally associated with being a captain.

Whether it’s taking it upon himself to host team functions, or looking every media member in the eye as he hangs around his stall a little longer to accommodate each request — even thanking the throng of reporters surrounding him for lending their time — Phaneuf possesses and exhibits the qualities coaches and executives expect out of their leaders.

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It’s why it seems totally contrary that it all fell apart when he held the most scrutinized leadership role in the NHL, at least among its players.

But it’s true: Phaneuf was miscast by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not because he couldn’t handle the pressure in the market, manage a room, or maintain the respect of his peers, but because as important as it is for leaders to maintain conduct, the role has evolved far beyond that.

It’s not enough to be “great in the room.” Nowadays, a captain’s influence on the ice, with the puck on his stick, has overriding importance.

It’s why the Ottawa Senators are Erik Karlsson’s team.

It’s why Phaneuf is in the perfect spot.

“I’m really happy to be where we’re at right now,” Phaneuf said in advance of Game 4. “I’m enjoying every day, enjoying every minute of it. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of this group. To go through what we have gone through this year, and to play the way that we have, it’s a real good group to be a part of.

“It’s fun playing hockey at this time of year.”

He added: “It’s been a good change for me.”

In Ottawa, Phaneuf’s role is to lend support to his gifted captain.

Dion Phaneuf has brought invaluable balance and leadership to the Ottawa Senators, who can move to within a win of a Stanley Cup Final appearance with a win in Game 4. (Daniel Lea/CSM/REX/Shutterstock)

This goes well beyond accountability. As the on-ice antithesis to Karlsson, the Senators struck a balance between their top-four pairings, which has allowed Guy Boucher to pursue the matchups that make the most sense for his staff.

In the case of the Eastern Conference Final, this means successfully running Karlsson and Marc Methot out against the supreme speed and skill of the Sidney Crosby line, while Phaneuf and Cody Ceci tackle the second-line matchup against Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

So far, Phaneuf has done a masterful job, helping limit Pittsburgh’s potent scoring unit to just a single goal through three games. But his influence goes even beyond the scoreboard. To a man, the Senators will tell you the manner in which Phaneuf has confronted this matchup with Kessel — a former teammate with the Maple Leafs and great friend — has been an enormous source of inspiration, and the precise example to follow.

This is how Phaneuf was always meant to lead.

“He’s on that team, and I’m on this team. And we’re doing everything that we possibly can for our teams. There’s nothing personal. Right now, I’m on this team. I’m proud to be a part of this team,” he said of the noteworthy matchup.

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“It’s about competing for your ice, competing against a skilled guy — he’s one of their top skilled guys. We gotta play them hard, we gotta play them honest.”

There might come a time when Phaneuf’s whopping salary will begin to undermine the success of the Senators. But for now, with his team within two wins of an unlikely Stanley Cup Final appearance, his largely contentious acquisition has been an undeniable success in Ottawa — a place where there’s no pressure to be something he’s not.

Phaneuf is thriving as a natural leader performing both a complementary and invaluable on-ice function.

It’s a role much easier to fill without the pressure to be Scott Stevens.