CALGARY – How Dion Phaneuf will feel about wearing a Maple Leaf jersey in Calgary is a mystery.
The Toronto Maple Leafs practised at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Wednesday afternoon without their captain. He’d flown to Prince Edward Island for the funeral of his grandmother Roma who died Saturday at the age of 83.
Head coach Ron Wilson said Phaneuf would return to Calgary on Wednesday evening.
Once the future of the Flames’ blue-line, Phaneuf will play his first game in Calgary on Thursday since the 25-year-old defenceman was dealt to Toronto on Jan. 31 in a multi-player deal.
The build-up to his return was deflated by his absence Wednesday. Leafs forward Kris Versteeg provided some levity by wearing a Phaneuf mask on his face during warmup. He mimicked Phaneuf’s warmup routine and shooting style.
“Hopefully when he sees it, he laughs,” Versteeg said.
Phaneuf’s reception at the Saddledome will likely be mixed Thursday.
He didn’t ask for a trade and showed rare and genuine emotion when he was dealt. The former Calder and Norris Trophy candidate generated offence from the back end, delivered highlight-reel hits and gave the club star power.
But Phaneuf’s defensive lapses, which could be forgiven earlier in his career, became more glaring and frustrating his fourth season in the league. That combined with a drop-off in his offensive production made him a polarizing figure for Flames fans.
“I know there are probably people here that loved him and probably people at the other end of the spectrum,” defenceman Cory Sarich said. “What I found most of the time with Dion, it was one or the other as to people’s opinions.”
Phaneuf’s punishing checks and laser blasts from the point are trademarks of his game. Sarich expects the same Thursday from his former teammate now.
“When has he ever played a quiet game out there?” Sarich asked. “You don’t expect anything but vintage Dion. I’m sure forwards, whether you guys print it or whether we say it, make sure you’ve got your head up because he’ll definitely be looking to make a statement.”
The formative years of Phaneuf’s career were heavily influenced by Flames general manager Darryl Sutter and head coach Brent Sutter. Brent coached Phaneuf for four years with the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels.
Darryl drafted him ninth overall in 2003 and coached Phaneuf his rookie year in the NHL when he was a nominee for the Calder. Brent coached him again last season until he was traded.
Phaneuf’s return will remind Flames fans of how little payoff Darryl Sutter has gotten so far from the trade with Toronto. The Flames did not make the playoffs last season and are currently second-last in the Western Conference at 13-15-3.
The Leafs also haven’t felt much impact from the transaction either. The Leafs are 25-24-7, while the Flames are 26-27-5 since the deal. Toronto finished in the Eastern Conference basement last season and are currently 11th at 12-14-4.
Phaneuf, six foot three and 214 pounds, has three goals and 13 assists in his 40 games as Leaf. He’s minus-5 so far this season.
He scored his first goal of the season Tuesday in a 4-1 win over the Oilers in his hometown. It was just his third game after missing 16 due to a leg laceration. Phaneuf said little following the game in Edmonton on the prospect of playing in Calgary.
“I played a lot of hockey there,” he told reporters. “I have a lot of respect for the organization and the players I played with there. A lot of good friendships were made and I am looking forward to going back.”
Calgary had nine-game run without a win last January and needed help on offence. The Flames sent Phaneuf, forward Fredrik Sjostrum and prospect Keith Aulie to the Leafs for forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and defender Ian White.
Stajan, Hagman and White combined for 12 goals in the 27 games after their arrival last season. White scored four of them and he was traded to Carolina in November. Mayers, more enforcer than scorer, signed with Tampa Bay in the off-season.
Stajan was the key player of the deal for Calgary. He had three goals and 13 assists last season for the Flames. Darryl Sutter thought highly enough of his performance to award him a four-year contract extension with a US$3.5 million annual salary.
A shoulder injury delayed the start of this season for Stajan, who turns 27 next week. He’s played centre upon his return on Calgary’s top two lines and produced a goal and 15 assists in 25 games.
Hagman has seven goals and seven assists in 31 games, although the 31-year-old Finn is minus-seven. Sjostrum has three goals and six assists in 50 games with Toronto.
Where the Leafs may have the edge in the deal is in upside. Phaneuf has years of offensive production ahead of him and ample time to iron out the defensive kinks in his game. Aulie, a 21-year-old rookie defenceman, got considerable ice time during Phaneuf’s absence. He’s minus-5 in 11 games.
Calgary beat Columbus 3-2 in overtime on Monday and desperately need to string together a pair of wins for the first time since October. Flames forward Craig Conroy said he saw some fans Monday still wearing their Phaneuf jerseys.
“He was a guy who never wanted to leave. He wanted to stay here,” Flames centre Olli Jokinen pointed out. “He scored over 20 goals in his rookie year, a Norris Trophy candidate. He’s got a lot of upside. I never had any problems with him, you know? He’s a good teammate who played hard and practised hard. I would take him on my team any day.”