|Dion Phaneuf said playing with an edge is necessary for his success.
The comparisons are so obvious that even the proud Hall of Famer acknowledges the three-year pro has many of his same qualities.
“He’s got a nasty little temper to him, and the physical part, which I like,” the Hall of Famer said. “He’s a good open-ice hitter, and he can drop the gloves, which is how I saw myself when I was younger. He sticks up for his teammates. I like his style.”
Now all Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf has to do is keep it up for 19 or 20 more seasons and win a handful of Stanley Cups so he can earn more than just the respect of Scott Stevens, the aforementioned Hall of Famer.
Phaneuf is on his way, at least in terms of personal accomplishments.
In Atlanta on Jan. 27, the 22-year-old will play in his second straight All-Star Game in just his third NHL season, this time as a starter on the Western Conference’s blue line after being voted in by the fans, along with Detroit veteran Nicklas Lidstrom.
“I remember my first year, (Flames General Manager) Darryl Sutter said to me; ‘I don’t look at you as a 20-year-old. You’re going to have to contribute to this team. Age is just a number,’ ” Phaneuf told NHL.com. “I still have a lot to learn, but with every year I take on a bigger role.”
This season, the growing has continued under veteran coach Mike Keenan, who spent a good portion of his career coaching against Stevens. Keenan appreciates the comparisons to Stevens, especially now that Phaneuf is learning how to control his emotions the way Stevens did early in his career.
When Stevens was Phaneuf’s age, he would lose his temper quickly and often wound up in the penalty box. By curbing some of the nonsense he became one of the most ferocious two-way defensemen in NHL history, not to mention a three-time Stanley Cup champion.
“Scott would also be one of the first people to relate to you that his passion to the game was remarkable early in his career,” Keenan told NHL.com. “He’d fight every game, for sure. That notion of hitting and taking control of the game was there. Much like Dion, a lot of that had to be harnessed. They want to do everything all by themselves, but once they learn the details of their game, which Scott did, he grew into a more effective player. For Dion to be a more focused player, that’s part of the details.”
Phaneuf said playing with an edge is necessary for his success, but he obviously realizes to be effective he has to stay on the ice. Unlike Stevens, who wracked up 617 penalty minutes in his first three seasons, Phaneuf has been doing a good job so far. He recorded just 93 penalty minutes in 82 games during his rookie season and only 98 in 79 games last season. Meanwhile, he had 37 goals, including 29 on the power play, and 62 assists in those first two years. He was a combined plus-15.
Phaneuf’s 85 penalty minutes put him on pace for well over 100 this season, but it hasn’t curbed his production. He still has 30 points in 46 games and is averaging a team-best 26:38 of ice time per game, including a team-high 5:20 per game as Calgary’s power-play quarterback.
“You don’t want to take yourself out of the play, that’s the biggest thing,” Phaneuf said. “You have to be really conscious of it. You don’t want to put your team at a disadvantage to go make a hit.”
Phaneuf, though, still has his fair share of YouTube-worthy hits so far. That doesn’t surprise New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter, who saw Phaneuf run roughshod over the Western Hockey League while coaching him for four seasons with the Red Deer Rebels.
“The thing I love about Dion is he doesn’t give a rat’s (behind). It doesn’t bother him that he did that and five guys came after him. The next shift, if he had a chance, he’d do it all over again,” Sutter said. “You know the big kid in Minnesota, (Derek) Boogaard? He used to drive Boogaard crazy during junior. Boogaard used to follow Dion around all the time. The next shift, boom, Dion would crush him. He didn’t care.”
“He was as big as he is now,” Phaneuf said of Boogaard, the Wild’s 6-foot-7, 258-pound bruising left wing, “but I’m a physical guy and that’s what I have to do to help the teams I play on.”
The fear factor obviously is there with the 6-3, 212-pound Phaneuf, but he’s more effective when jumping into the play on offense.
“I play big minutes on the power play and you have to put up numbers when asked to play in those situations,” Phaneuf said. “That’s bottom line.”
Stevens also saw power-play time, but he wasn’t nearly as prolific. Seventy-five of his 196 career goals came on the power play, but he reached double-digits for a season only once, when he scored 16 in 1984-85. He potted just eight over his final 10 seasons.
“I think he has enough offense that he’s somewhere between Scott Stevens and Larry Robinson in that Larry did play on the power play and was a puck-moving defenseman. Dion has that skill set,” Keenan said. “Scott played on the power play, but he was very much a defending defenseman who would always play against the top competitors on the opposing team. Dion has that portion of his game, too.”
All he has to do now is keep it that way for another two decades.
Dan Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org