Dion Phaneuf was unequivocally the first Flames draft pick to get excited about since Cory Stillman. To put that in perspective, when Cory Stillman was drafted, I was about a year old.
Whether it was Phaneuf’s talent or the relative impotency of the Flames draft picks in the intervening years (likely a combination of both), it doesn’t really matter – Phaneuf was a player to be legitimately enthused about when he was drafted with the 9th overall pick in 2003. At the time, the franchise had just completed its 7th season in a row without a playoff spot. Things were about as bad as they had ever been in Flames land.
However, during the season the Flames had hired a man named Darryl Sutter to coach, and eventually manage the team. One of Darryl’s first acts as GM was drafting the explosive Phaneuf, then playing for his brother Brent’s team in Red Deer. The ‘03 draft was loaded with top end talent, and Sutter was able to grab one of the most sought-after prospects.
The Double Dion
The first time I saw Phaneuf was the 2004 World Junior Championship. The “dream team” included players like Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Andrew Ladd, Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and Dion.
Phaneuf had a great tournament, with the most memorable moments coming the Gold Medal game – Pierre Maguire’s famous “Double Dion” call and Phaneuf’s complete domination of Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin was forced out of the game in the 3rd period as a result of a Phanuef hit.
After the World Juniors had completed, Phaneuf returned to the Rebels where he was named the CHL player of the year for the second year in a row – besting Sidney Crosby in both years.
Phaneuf’s first season was one to remember, as he played more than 20 minutes per game on the second pairing and got a ton of power play time, resulting in the Flames to the 12th ranked power play in the league. Phaneuf garnered a Calder trophy nomination for his 20-goal, 49-point point rookie debut. Visions of Norris trophies danced in our heads.
Phaneuf’s next three seasons were all quality as well – playing mid-tier competition, he scored at greater than a .5 PPG pace in each of them, resulting in both a Norris trophy nomination and a new 6-year, 39 million dollar contract in 2008.
The 08-09 season seems to be considered a poor one from Phaneuf, but his 47 points in 80 games suggest otherwise. The still young defender did struggle in the playoffs, battling broken ribs, missing the last game of Calgary’s playoff series against Chicago.
Phaneuf’s 09-10 season did not start out well. Playing top competition with both Robyn Regehr and Jay Bouwmeester, he struggled to put up points – just 22 in his 55 games played as a Flames that season – and looked just plain awkward in his own zone facing the best the league had to offer.
As a result, and with the entire team struggling to the tune of a 9-game losing streak, Phaneuf was traded to the Leafs on January 31st, 2010. As time has progressed, Phaneuf is really the only relevant player left in that deal. All the others, with the exception of possibly Ian White, have become AHL tweeners or 4th liners (sorry Matt) or are out of North America completely.
The trade had a dramatic impact on both the Flames and the Leafs – for the Flames, it was the end of an era with a player who had been homegrown and who was considered a cornerstone player. For the Leafs, their new captain and #1 Defenseman had arrived.
Regardless of what has come out in the time since the trade about who Sutter contacted and possible locker room issues, the reality is Calgary gave up a very good (albeit overpaid) young player for basically squat. It was true then and it remains true today – personally, I would rather have Phaneuf than Dennis Wideman. It’s not that simple, of course, but Phaneuf’s role in Calgary should’ve been, and likely would still be, that of a #2/3 guy who is competent on the PP.
Sutter and Phaneuf will always be tied together simply because their respective peaks and valleys were highly correlated – Sutter’s popularity in the offseason of 04 and throughout the lockout was insanely high, and with good reason. Phaneuf’s rookie season in 05-06 resulted in an amazing debut, scoring 20 goals and 29 assists on his way to a Calder trophy nomination on the Flames’ first division winning season in more than a decade.
Likewise, the team’s rapid decline from December 2009 to February 2010 resulted in an amazing amount of vitriol directed (quite fairly) towards Sutter – with the tipping point for many fans being the trade that shipped Phaneuf out of town. Sutter hung around until December of that year, but from that point on, he seemed to be a dead man walking.
Phaneuf’s post-Flames career in Toronto has been largely successful, essentially being named captain the second he walked into the Maple Leafs’ dressing room. Toronto hasn’t made the playoffs since before the lockout, but it’s hard to pin too much blame on Phaneuf – he’s scored at almost a .5 point per game pace since he’s been in Toronto and he’s been playing some of the toughest completion on the team in that time.
While Phaneuf was never able to develop into what we all thought he would be in Calgary – a true, dominating number one defenseman – he seems to have at least settled into a competent first pairing rearguard in the center of the universe, although no one expects him to challenge for the Norris anymore.
Regardless of the reasons for his “decline” in Calgary – Phaneuf has found his niche in Toronto. He’s been a successful player and likely will continue to be. Although his contract was and is large, he provides enough value as a top-pairing defenseman to minimize the overpay.
Phaneuf still possesses extreme physical talent and he still shoots the puck as hard as anyone in the league. He moves around the ice well, and that’s why he’s had success.
A treat to watch in Calgary, and an excellent player to hate in Toronto.
Flames top 10 Draft Picks:
- #10 – Sergei Makarov
- #9 – Dion Phaneuf