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Phaneuf is a difference-maker in the making

by Larry Wigge / Calgary Flames

Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf was

on the ice for almost half of Game 1 against the
Sharks on Wednesday night, logging 28 minutes.
Dion Phaneuf video highlights 
You could say that Dion Phaneuf is finally coming of age.

You could say that in one game this year, the Calgary Flames impact defenseman did as much, if not more, than in his previous 13 playoff games.

In Wednesday's 3-2 victory against San Jose in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, Phaneuf played a game-high 28 minutes, 42 seconds, had six shots, five hits and blocked a shot. He also jumped in from the point to bat in a power-play goal less than six minutes into the game to give the Flames a 2-0 lead. Finally, he played the part of a pretty impressive shutdown defenseman, going against the likes of talented centers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

That's in stark contrast to the one goal and one assist and minus-12 rating he compiled in 13 games in opening-round losses to Anaheim and Detroit the past two playoff seasons.

And you could say that there are almost too many things to talk about when discussing the 23-year-old from Edmonton that is quickly delivering on the good faith that saw him go No. 9 in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

There's his toughness, hitting opponents with thunderous checks on a nightly basis. There's his talent, improving his point total -- 49, 50 and 60 points – is each of his first three NHL seasons. There's his dedication, a tangible love for the game.

And there is a clear sense that the 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman has been climbing the walls trying to live up to the expectations of the new six-year, $39 million contract he signed a couple of months ago.

"I definitely haven't had the results, personally or as a team, the last two times in the playoffs," Phaneuf said "We weren't happy with the last two seasons and, personally, I wasn't good enough."

But Phaneuf knows he can be good enough. He wants to be a no-doubt difference-maker, one who can take over a game the same way teammates Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff can. That's Phaneuf's long-range goal. That's all he has on his mind.

Phaneuf is well on his way, say those that spend the most time around him.

"He's always got energy and it's infectious for us," Iginla said of his loud-hitting, soft-talking teammate. "He's trying to run over everyone he can and he's in everyone's face. He doesn't back down."

Making an impact. Proving he can lead. Showing he's a winner. Those items are all on Dion's agenda.

"I've seen the impact, the leadership and the confidence," St. Louis coach Andy Murray said a short while back, remembering the impact Phaneuf made for Team Canada in its 9-0 run to a gold medal at the World Championships last May in Russia. "He's definitely not short on confidence. I do believe someday soon he'll be a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate."

Phoenix captain Shane Doan was on that Team Canada squad as well.

"It's the important times when you see the great players show they are winners," Doan said. "Dion was a tower of strength for us in that tournament last May."

Chris Pronger revealed his true identity to the hockey world with a couple of big playoff successes while in St. Louis. Then he went on to win the Norris Trophy as the game's best defenseman. So did Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer and Chris Chelios.

"Shutdown defensive matchups (have) more and more become the one way to neutralize the great offensive stars in the game," Flames coach Mike Keenan said. "Look no farther than what Anaheim did with Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin and Sean O'Donnell in winning the Stanley Cup last spring."

It's obvious from Keenan's grouping of talented defensemen that shutdown D can come in all shapes and sizes and from different backgrounds. And it's funny how sometimes they fall to the right situation, the right team.

I'll never forget a warm day in late June 2003 arriving at the airport, expecting to make the short flight from St. Louis to Nashville for the draft alone ... until I saw a friendly face ... then-Flames GM/coach Darryl Sutter, on a layover from San Jose, where his daughter, Jessie, had just graduated from high school. He was beaming like a true proud father when I asked about his daughter and the ceremony.

During the course of our 45-minute wait and the next couple of hours before we walked into the same hotel in Nashville, Darryl Sutter touched on all sorts of subjects concerning the Flames. One, of course, was what his team wanted to do in the draft.

He spoke of the three defensemen at the top of everyone's draft list: Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn and Phaneuf. He told me what he liked about each of these youngsters. But when he began to analyze Phaneuf, I swear I saw the same proud look on his face as I did when he was talking about his daughter's graduation.

I asked about the inside track he had into the tangible and intangibles he had on Phaneuf because Darryl Sutter's brother, Brent, was Phaneuf's junior coach with Red Deer in the Western Hockey league.

After all, you take every edge you can in finding out info about an 18-year-old you plan to help build your future team around, right?

"Obviously, Brent's my brother," Darryl said, looking me square in the eyes. "But you can tell when he puts Dion on the ice; it's against the other team's best player. To me, that's more important than asking (Brent) what he thinks of him."

Darryl Sutter, now just the GM of the team, swears he wasn't squirming in his seat as the Sharks surprised the Flames a little by taking left wing Milan Michalek with the sixth pick, then Nashville picked Suter and Atlanta announced Coburn's name.

A short time back, I reminded Sutter of our time together and he told me if Phaneuf wasn't there, the Flames would have likely switched off and picked center Mike Richards, a real leader who went to the Philadelphia Flyers.

What that shows us, without a shred of doubt, is that everything starts with character and leadership and passion for Darryl Sutter. Phaneuf fits the Flames mold perfectly.

"There are some players opponents learn to hate to play and, at 22, 23, he's already one of those." -- Jarome Iginla on Dion Phaneuf
"Dion's got an edge to his game," Sutter said. "People aren't sure about him. I think that's why some people have compared him to such a scary defender as Scott Stevens.

"But he's more than that. He's a heart-and-soul player. He's smart, knowing when to take a chance on offense and when he can make a big hit and not hurt the team on defense."

If there's one thing I've learned through the years, it's that Sutters know sacrifice. They know edge. They know snarl.

"He's mature beyond his years," Iginla told me. "There are some players opponents learn to hate to play and, at 22, 23, he's already one of those."

Phaneuf had some good models to follow when he was growing up in Edmonton and going to games with his dad, Paul, and rooting for the, uh, Oilers, Calgary's hated rival in The Battle of Alberta.

"All of that stopped a few years ago," Phaneuf said of his Oilers rooting interests. "First I went south from Edmonton to Red Deer and then even further south to Calgary."

It was at Red Deer that Phaneuf found a way to manage his time and tension off the ice when he met Dan Johnson, a woodworking expert and hockey fan.

Phaneuf may tear into opposing players with his open-ice hits, but give him a carpenter's tool, and it's a different story. His hands are skilled.

"I learned I could get away from the game while working with wood," Phaneuf told me, sounding surprised to hear that anyone knew that he could do more than shoot and pass and fight with his hands. "I made some chairs and then I got ambitious and finished an entertainment center for the mom and dad's big-screen TV."

On-ice creativity for Phaneuf comes from the fire in his eyes. It manifests itself with his aggressive posture when defending and, when on offense, in his howitzer of a shot from the point.

"I can't be a guy who's a fancy player," Phaneuf said. "I have to be a guy that plays the body. Whether they give you a shot here or there ... I play my game. I take pride in other teams hating to play against me."

But the only real dark side to Phaneuf is the dark mahogany wood he likes to work with in pursuing his hobby.

Phaneuf is already an in-your-face, intimidating factor, using his size, muscle and skills to make a difference.

So, yeah, I'd say Dion Phaneuf is more than just coming of age.
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