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Phaneuf leads way among Northwest defenseman

by Brian Compton

As a NHL defenseman, there is no greater compliment you can receive than being asked to play on the top pairing and log as many minutes as possible.

During the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, it appeared that Nicklas Lidstrom was always on the ice. One of the greatest defensemen of all-time, Lidstrom could be counted on by coach Mike Babcock to play in virtually every situation.

While there is nobody on Lidstrom's level in the Northwest Division -- or any other, for that matter -- there certainly some tremendous players who can carry the load.     With the 2008-09 campaign upon us, takes a closer look at the Northwest Division's top defenseman on each team in the ice-time department:

1. Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames -- The complete package, Phaneuf (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) was phenomenal in his third pro season and led all Northwest defensemen with 26:25 per game. Phaneuf, a Norris Trophy finalist in 2008, had 17 goals, 43 assists and a plus-12 rating.

Not only did Phaneuf finish atop all Northwest defensemen in ice time, but he ranked fifth in the NHL behind only Jay Bouwmeester (Florida), Dan Boyle (Tampa Bay), Zdeno Chara (Boston) and Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit).

At 23, Phaneuf is already one of the League's top defensemen. It's almost scary to think how good he'll be four or five years down the road.

"Dion's got an edge to his game," Flames GM Darryl 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."

2. Sheldon Souray, Edmonton Oilers -- Injuries slowed Souray to a crawl after he signed a five-year deal last summer. But when the offensively gifted Souray was able to play, he logged plenty of minutes. In the 26 games he played, Souray led the Oilers with 24:20 per game. Right behind him was Joni Pitkanen (24:07), who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes this summer in exchange for forward Erik Cole.

Hoping to justify the long-term deal the Oilers gave him, a healthy Souray enters this training camp and the 2008-09 season with a chip on his shoulder.

"The shoulder feels real good," said Souray, who scored 26 goals for the Montreal Canadiens in 2006-07. "I'm looking forward to starting the season healthy next year. It's a tough situation, going to a new team with a new contract and getting hurt, but now I have a little something to prove."

3. Mattias Ohlund, Vancouver Canucks -- Always reliable, the 32-year-old led Vancouver in the ice-time category in 2007-08 with 23:46 per contest. One of Roberto Luongo's biggest helpers, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Ohlund had 24 points (9 goals, 15 assists) and 79 penalty minutes in 53 games.

Ohlund was lost for the final month of the regular season after undergoing knee surgery. With a clean bill of health, he's ready to help the Canucks return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out by just three points last season.

4. Kim Johnsson, Minnesota Wild -- After missing nearly half the 2005-06 season with a concussion, Johnsson has appeared in 156 games since and was heavily counted upon by Jacques Lemaire last season. Johnsson, 32, missed just two contests in 2007-08 and led all Wild defensemen with 23:26 per game. He finished with four goals and 23 assists.

Even with the addition of Marek Zidlicky from the Nashville Predators during the summer, it's certainly possible that Johnsson could lead the Wild in ice time again in 2008-09.

5. Adam Foote, Colorado Avalanche -- He was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets at February's trade deadline, and the veteran blueliner did not disappoint.

While the Avs were ousted by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, not all was lost. Just hours before the free agency market was set to open, the Avalanche re-signed Foote -- who led the club with 23:23 per contest -- to a two-year contract.

"Adam was a big part of our stretch run last season," Avs GM Francois Giguere said. "He has been an important leader for this franchise for many years and we're counting on him to play the same role over the next two seasons."

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