Cherry pickin' Dion for Calder

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:31 AM ET

The reaction proves there's still a bit of a kid in Dion Phaneuf.

In his nationally syndicated radio show, Don Cherry yesterday picked the Flames blueliner as his early choice for rookie of the year.

Phaneuf, when told of Cherry's praise, stopped in his tracks.

"Sweet," he beamed.

Cherry said he believes the Calder Trophy will go to either Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin -- but his endorsement of Phaneuf proves the Flames' first-year defenceman is being noticed outside of Southern Alberta.

For good reason, seeing as all who have seen Phaneuf this season agree the 20-year-old plays the game well beyond his years.

His defence partner, Roman Hamrlik, can't help but be impressed.

"I didn't see him in junior but it seems to me like he's played 10 years in the league. He's got great speed, everything a defenceman needs," said Hamrlik, who's skated with Phaneuf since the season began.

The kudos for Phaneuf don't end there.

Calgary GM/head coach Darryl Sutter called Phaneuf "the best 20-year-old defenceman I've ever been associated with, by a substantial margin."

Chicago head coach -- and former Flames defenceman -- Trent Yawney said: "He's 10 times better than I ever was."

Prior to last night's clash with the Chicago Blackhawks, Phaneuf was tied for fourth on the squad with 13 points (5-8-13), which Hamrlik said is just the tip of the iceberg.

"He has the ability to be one of the best defenceman someday. He's only 20 years old and has everything in front of him. He's not going to need a lot of help," Hamrlik said.

At this point, though, Phaneuf is receiving plenty of aid, much of it from Hamrlik, who is closing in on his 900th career game.

Phaneuf is appreciative.

"He's been an all-star at this level and knows what it takes," said Phaneuf.

"There's little things I try to learn on a daily basis, in practice and in games. I've been very fortunate to be paired with a guy like that.

"It's more just keeping the game as simple as we can. We talk a lot on the bench and on the ice about all those things to improve."

Hamrlik also knows a thing or two about coming into the league with high expectations. The first overall pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992, Hamrlik broke into the league in the ensuing fall but admits he had nowhere near the success Phaneuf is currently enjoying.

"My first two years were very hard," Hamrlik said. "I didn't have much ice time until my third or fourth year and then started playing 25-30 minutes a game.

"I'm glad I didn't go home when I was 20.

"I was thinking about it."

Sutter admitted he didn't originally plan to pair Phaneuf with Hamrlik.

Reason being Hamrlik is capable of skating the big minutes while Phaneuf is just out of the junior ranks. Robyn Regehr's injury necessitated the pairing and Phaneuf's strong play alongside the vet kept them together.

"If you look at the last stretch of games, and it's another reason I think we've played better, is Dion's minutes aren't as high as they were before," Sutter said. "He's playing 17 to 21 minutes a night instead of 21 to 25. Roman can play more because you can use him in more important times of games."

Although his defence partner may be a reason for slightly diminished ice time -- Hamrlik is averaging 22:40 per game as opposed to the 25-plus he'd been logging while with the New York Islanders -- he won't complain.

"I'm really enjoying playing with him," said the rejuvenated vet. "I've played with lots of defencemen and he's one of the best I've played with so far."


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