Calling the Old Dion

Last time I checked, Dion Phaneuf’s image still adorned the walls of Flames Central – the Calgary Flames themed restaurant in downtown Calgary. The very presence of that picture speaks to the impact Phaneuf had on Calgary. He wasn’t just a poster boy for the Flames; he was the franchise’s hope for the future.

Phaneuf earned the respect, expectations and contract in his first years in Calgary. In his first three seasons with the Flames he had 49, 50 and 60 points respectively. He was a 20 goal scorer in 2005-06 and a 60 point getter in 2007-08. A punishing checker with a huge offensive upside is high on any team’s wish list and that is exactly what he was.

The only downside to Phaneuf seemed to be holes in his defensive coverage. To be fair though, many young blueliners share in that struggle.

Then came 2007-08 when Phaneuf signed a six-year $39 million contract. Although he posted a career high 60 points and a plus-12 rating, nothing seemed to be the same. Phaneuf fell victim to the contract curse. With great money comes great responsibility – if you want to get philosophical about it.

In year one of the contract, Phaneuf dropped to 47 points. His 11 goals were the fewest to that point in his NHL career. His rating also dropped to minus-11.

In year two of the contract Phaneuf’s defensive struggles continued, his focus and confidence seemed non-existent and he managed only 22 points in 55 games. He went from hero to scapegoat in Calgary and eventually his biggest fan, Darryl Sutter, was forced to trade him to Toronto.

What seemed to be an anomaly in Phaneuf’s play in Calgary – reduced speed, offensively tentative and playing with shaken confidence – has become somewhat of the norm for him.

There are glimpses of the old Dion Phaneuf. The occasional highlight real hit or massive slap shot on a power play still happen. They just happen with less frequency.

And then there are plays like last night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Out of nowhere, the Phaneuf from 2006 was back. Starting behind his own net, he outskated James Neal and Jordan Staal, before then maneuvred around Matt Niskanen and Staal in the Penguins’ corner before starting a beautiful passing play that ended with Mikhail Grabovski’s OT winner.

Quite honestly, it was a thing of beauty. Observers know that behind Phaneuf’s recent inconsistency is a brilliant offensively minded defenseman.

So where is he hiding? Why was last night such a surprise? Three seasons ago that play would have just been another day at the office for Phaneuf.

Phaneuf has been steady for the Leafs. Not overly impressive and not a disaster. As it stands right now, Keith Aulie appears to be the key piece of the Leafs-Flames trade. Phaneuf is probably the least quotable captain in the NHL but the young Leafs seem to respect his leadership.

The $6.5 million cap hit is where the problems start. The realities of a salary cap environment make a player like Phaneuf an easy target. While Brian Burke and Ron Wilson may argue otherwise, the Leafs aren’t getting $6.5 million worth of hockey player.

Phaneuf has 18 points in 48 games this season. Comparatively, former Leaf Carlo Colaiacovo ($2.1 million) has 20 points in 47 games and Ryan Whitney ($4 million) has 27 points in 35 games with a team fighting for a top overall pick in next year’s draft. Colaiacovo averages less ice time, while Whitney averages only a minute more ice time than Phaneuf.

Many teams with large cap hit defensemen don’t get the full value, to be fair. How is the Connecticut Whale of the AHL enjoying the services of Wade Redden? It could definitely be worse for the Leafs and Phaneuf. But it should be better.

The New York Rangers have survived and almost flourished without Redden. The Leafs, however, need Phaneuf to be a key piece of the puzzle moving forward. That means a return to at least 50 point seasons.

If I knew what was holding Phaneuf back I certainly wouldn’t be writing this – I’d be relaxing on a beach and have a Maple Leaf logo on my business card. Unfortunately, all I have is speculation.

From my standpoint there are three possible issues:

  • Desire. Phaneuf could be a contract based player. With guaranteed money and term his desire to win just isn’t there.
  • Confidence. A bad season combined with being traded from the home province team that drafted him might have left him doubting his abilities.
  • Coaching. Ron Wilson may have a different role in mind for Phaneuf. Given how uncomfortable Phaneuf has looked at times this is a strong possibility.

My opinion is that he suffers from a mixture of confidence and coaching issues. While the Leafs and Phaneuf have been performing much better lately, the reality exists that Phaneuf just isn’t the same.

The undeniable fact is that he can be a game changer in the NHL. I still believe the early version of Phaneuf exists and he is just what the Leafs need to consistently be a playoff team and possible contender.

Whatever the issues, not matter what the cause, the Leafs need to do what the Flames couldn’t – bring Dion Phaneuf back to full potential.

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