If you had to choose between flashy Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin and the hard-driving Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who would you pick? Flames winger Jeff Friesen, who was a teammate of Ovechkin’s last season, sidesteps the question. “I would take them both,” he declared. “You could flip a coin with either one if you had to pick one.”
Ovechkin and Phaneuf, along with Pittsburgh forward Sidney Crosby, were the NHL’s best freshmen last season in the most competitive rookie class in years.
Now super sophomores, the 21-year-olds met for the first time in their NHL careers Monday in Calgary and the scales tipped towards Ovechkin.
Phaneuf was coming off what the Flames said was a bout of the flu that had kept him out of the previous game against Nashville. He played conservatively, without his trademark board-rattling hits.
Ovechkin, playing his third game in four nights, didn’t produce one of his highlight reel goals, but was a physical presence.
He got a couple of knocks on Phaneuf, contributed two assists and was a dangerous presence for the Caps in a 4-2 win.
The question of which player is better is moot because they play different positions. The debate is over which one has a greater impact for their team.
While Ovechkin’s goal-scoring prowess gets more television time, a defenceman like Phaneuf is worth his considerable weight in gold to a GM because he can almost single-handedly keep the defensive side of a team’s ledger clean.
The common denominator in their games is power, which they put into bone-crunching hits and laser-beam shots.
“Obviously Dion is known for the big hit,” Friesen said. “Ovechkin, there was a lot of games where he’d have three highlight hits. Not just finishing guys, but finishing them with power.”
Their personalities are night and day.
Ovechkin has a man-about-town swagger. He embraces his role as an entertainer with a lighthearted demeanour and a ready grin.
If his play didn’t stand out on the ice, his equipment would. Ovechkin wears a tinted visor and he laces his skates so the tongues stick out the front of his shins like fins.
Calgarians furiously snapped pictures of Ovechkin, clad in bright yellow Crocs and his hockey underwear, as he took shots on net from the middle of the Pengrowth Saddledome at hour before the game.
The six-foot-two, 212-pound Ovechkin doesn’t see the need to knock himself out in practice, said Friesen, who spent most of last season with the Caps.
“He’s one of the worst practice players I’ve played with,” Friesen said. “He rests and when the game comes, he flips the switch on.
“He plays a dominant physical style, so I think he just relaxes in practice and as a veteran player, I admire that.”
The 6-3, 213-pound Phaneuf is no-nonsense and straight-laced. He had a Sutter as a coach for five formative years – four in Red Deer (Brent) before his rookie season with the Flames (Darryl) – which may explain Phaneuf’s intensity and reserve.
The Sutter way is conformity because no player should put himself before the team. And Phaneuf would wear pink skates before he’d loaf in a practice.
But Friesen says both Phaneuf and Ovechkin relish their status as the young studs of the NHL.
“They do it in different ways, but I think they both enjoy the spotlight,” Friesen said. “They’re good marketable guys for the game.
“They are just two completely different personalities.”