By John F. Molinaro
He plays with all the poise, maturity and intelligence of a veteran blue-liner.
He hits everything that moves, owns a booming shot from the point and isn't shy about unleashing it. He displays all-round ability. He's what many have called the "total package," a franchise defenceman you can build around.
But the most amazing thing about Calgary Flames rookie Dion Phaneuf is that he's only 21.
Phaneuf, selected ninth overall in the 2003 NHL draft, did not grab as many headlines as Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, but his rookie season was nearly as impressive. The Edmonton native distinguished himself with his physical play behind the blue-line and his offensive prowess at the other end of the ice.
Phaneuf's 20 goals were the third most in a rookie season by an NHL defenceman and he ended the 2005-06 campaign with 49 points, the second most in league history for a first-year blue-liner.
The former Western Hockey League standout with the Red Deer Rebels was also a key contributor in Calgary's stingy defensive unit.
Smooth move to NHL
Paired with veteran Roman Hamrlik on Calgary's second defensive unit,, Phaneuf averaged more than 21:43 of ice time during the regular season â the fourth highest total on the team âand was a big reason the Flames allowed a league-low 200 goals.
"I thought we were one of the better defence groups a couple years ago," Flames captain Jarome Iginla told reporters last week. "But adding Dion Phaneuf and Roman Hamrlik, I think it's a very good, young D that work very well with [goalie Miikka Kiprusoff] and make it hard on other teams as far as getting scored against."
Such praise is nothing new for the six-foot-two defenceman who has impressed teammates with his dogged defensive-minded play and his bone-crushing bodychecks.
Phaneuf earned plenty of admiration when he won back-to-back Bill Hunter trophies (top defenceman in the WHL) in his last two seasons with Red Deer, and when he was named to the tournament all-star team at the 2004 and 2005 world junior championship, helping Canada win a silver and gold medal.
Appreciation for his skills grew even more when he made a seamless transition into the NHL, leading all rookie defencemen in scoring during November with three goals and six assists. Both he and the team reaped the rewards: Phaneuf was named NHL rookie of the month and the Flames boasted a 10-2-1 record in November.
"He is going to be a great player," Hamrlik recently told the Orange County Register. "He's as physical and hits as hard as [former New Jersey Devil] Scott Stevens. He has one of the hardest power-play shots in the league. He's smart. He gets better."
"Getting Dion this year made up for losing a lot of other people," added Calgary defenceman Andrew Ference. "Of course he has a learning curve, but he doesn't have big holes in his game. He just has tiny details he has to work out, and the coaches love working with a guy with that much talent."
Two of the "tiny details he has to work out" are staying focused for 60 minutes and exercising better defensive judgment.
Wise beyond years
Phaneuf was signalled out by coach Darryl Sutter for his lack of concentration following Calgary's 2-1 victory over Anaheim in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarter-final.
"Dion was not very good, especially early in the game," Sutter told reporters after the game. "I didn't say he had to take it to another level; I said he's got to maintain that level. You're talking about a boy who just turned 21. I don't think you're talking about guys that are gonna have to take it to another level when they're 21, especially when they're defencemen."
In Game 2, with the Flames trailing by a goal midway through the third period, Phaneuf tried to take out forward Jonathan Hedstrom on an Anaheim rush inside the offensive blue-line instead of backing out of the zone.
It proved to be a costly decision: after making contact, Phaneuf could do nothing but watch a two-one-one breakaway develop â Hedstrom managed to chip a pass to a teammate before being hit â that resulted in Anaheim's game-winning goal.
He scored his first career playoff goal minutes later, but Phaneuf, who was minus-3 on the night, didn't hide from the media after the game and accepted responsibility for his error.
"I can't make those kind of mistakes at this time of the year," said Phaneuf. "We're playing a very good team over there. They're a very skilled team, a very fast team."
The ability to recognize his mistakes and own up to them is another indication that the rookie defenceman is wise beyond his years.