Don’t be seduced by Dion Phaneuf’s stats line of six points in six games. This is not yet a bounce-back season for him.
Much like he was for most of last season, Phaneuf has been a mess in his own end the first couple weeks of 2009-10. Even when paired with stalwart Robyn Regehr, there’s no saving the spectating ornament wearing the No. 3 of the Flames.
Next time you watch, focus in on Phaneuf. When the puck’s in the Calgary end, Dion can often be found standing around in front of Miikka Kiprusoff with one hand on his stick. He doesn’t anticipate well, he doesn’t take the body well (other than the occasional highlight reel hit), he doesn’t take a hit to make a play (slowing down going after a dump-in so he can be the hitter), he doesn’t defend 1-on-1’s well and he doesn’t block shots.
Compared to his first three seasons, Phaneuf doesn’t do a lot these days. Sure, he has the big shot and he is a nice skater and those things do separate the good defensemen from the great defensemen. Problem is, the defensive fundamentals that made Phaneuf a budding Norris Trophy candidate have gone missing.
And if GM Darryl Sutter didn’t realize it last season, his brother and coach Brent must be telling him in spades now. It’s an alarming development for the franchise. How is it that a 24-year-old defenseman supposedly in the prime of his career struggles so much in his own end?
The hope after Phaneuf’s regression year was he’d bounce back to form this season. With a new team defense-first philosophy and incoming blueline leader Jay Bouwmeester, Phaneuf was supposed to blossom again like he did under Sutter in junior.
It’s not happening, offensive stats aside. The Flames need to take Phaneuf back to Defending 101 and the Sutters are the men to do it. They’re cutting back his ice time (he’s 25th among NHL defensemen in average ice so far this season compared to fourth in 2008-09 and fifth in 2007-08), but he’s still a minus player and defensive liability.
The alternative is to trade him and his $6.5 million per season contract as he becomes a diminishing asset with each passing scouting report.
The team would never acknowledge this publicly. Privately, it must be a growing realization.
This article aslo appeared in the Calgary Metro newspaper.