Where to begin with Dion Phaneuf.
Just prior to the NHL All-Star Game, two Phaneuf slappers broke two panes of glass at the Pengrowth Saddledome in the same period. At the All-Star Game he was clocked with a 96.2 mph shot.
Just catch any nightly highlight reel on your sportscast of choice and there is bound to be a Phaneuf crunch of the game. He has an uncanny knack for lining players up to be rubbed into the boards or sent head over heels with a hip check at the Flames blueline.
Yes, that reads finesse. Known more as a burly, rough around the edges defenceman, part of Phaneuf’s maturation as a Calgary Flame has been his offensive touch. He is taking more shots in the shootouts and, when joining the rush, can be seen dangling and putting moves on goalies. At the NHL All-Star Game he helped the Western Conference win the Elimination Shootout as he was the only player to score twice in the showdown.
First, Phaneuf beat Tomas Vokoun when he faked a slap shot and put a forehand past the Florida netminder to qualify for the final. In the final St. Louis goalie Manny Legace stopped three shooters from the East and Phaneuf deked Tim Thomas to the ice and lifted the puck over the netminder for the win. The next day, at the All-Star Game, he scored a goal for the West.
“I go there to have fun, that’s the biggest thing. It’s an exciting weekend. It’s great exposure for the league. It’s an all-round great weekend. I bring my family down and the league does a great job of putting on events around the three days. It’s great to be a part of it,” said Phaneuf of the All-Star Game experience.
Phaneuf is in just his third NHL season but has already been to two All-Star extravaganzas. The six-foot-two, 212-pound Phaneuf will turn 23 in April, so his career is just getting started. With a bang, we might add.
After being groomed for the National Hockey League under Brent Sutter and the Red Deer Rebels program and winning a gold medal with Canada at the World Junior Championships in 2005, Phaneuf stepped into the big show and produced 20 goals and 49 points as a rookie. He finished third in rookie of the year voting in a very distinguished class – Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin won the award while Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby finished second.
He followed that up with a 17-goal, 50-point season last year while upping his minutes from an average of 21:43 a game to 25:39 a game. As the NHL season heads into the final stretch, Phaneuf was in the top 10 among defencemen in scoring, alongside the likes of Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Montreal’s Andrei Markov, two players who have been around the NHL longer than the younger Phaneuf. He is logging ice time in the 26 minute range, similar to established defencemen like Chris Pronger and Niklas Lidstrom.
“He has all the tools,” said fellow Flames defender Anders Eriksson of Phaneuf. “The biggest pressure he puts on himself is that he wants to be the best player every night. And not a lot of people have that. He works hard. And he is intense. And he doesn’t back down from anybody. Not a lot of people have that kind of courage. He will fight anybody.”
“I have to play that physical style. It’s a big part of my game. To be an effective player, I have to play that way,” said Phaneuf. “I always liked to play a physical style. It is something I have always enjoyed doing, since I was very young. I have always liked it.”
At 22, there is obviously a big upside for Phaneuf. Defencemen, noted Eriksson, often are late bloomers on the NHL learning curve. Having played in Detroit with current Wing defenceman and annual Norris Trophy candidate Lidstrom, Eriksson is qualified to offer advice and help nurture Phaneuf along.
“He is an experienced guy who has played in the league for a long time. I try and learn from the experienced guys in our room and he is one of them,” explained Phaneuf. “To have the opportunity to play with him is a good experience. We have to continue to improve and to get better.”
And getting better is what Phaneuf is all about. This season he appears to be more confident in joining the rush or heading to the front of the net on the power play.
“You have to keep getting better in all areas of the game. I want to keep improving as a player every day,” said Phaneuf, who has signed a new, six-year, $39 million contract with the Flames.
“Dion is always very intense. He cares a lot about the team. He wants to be the leader. He wants to lead the attack. He wants to do everything,” said Eriksson.
That’s not a bad thing, said Eriksson, but part of the learning curve Phaneuf is on is reading and reacting to what happens during the game.
“Sometimes you have to contain and wait for the opportunities,” said Eriksson. “Sometimes less is more. I think he will learn that as he goes. He is young and he will learn. Sometimes it is not going for the big hit but instead going for the puck. He watches other players and sees how they read plays. You can’t do everything at once.”
Certainly there is plenty that Phaneuf can do, from blasting shots, to knocking players on their rear ends, to killing penalties. He just keeps refining his skills and gaining confidence.
“It’s a good thing to have confidence. It’s a good thing to be aggressive. You need that. He asks questions, too. He wants to learn. I think he is right on track. He is going to be a tremendous player in this league for a long, long, time.”
Is a Norris Trophy in Phaneuf’s future?
“No doubt,” said Eriksson. “I think that comes with maturing and learning the game.”