That's Calderdash!

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

It's time to put an end to the silly debate over whether Dion Phaneuf deserves Calder Trophy recognition as the league's top rookie.

One quarter of the way through his brilliant debut with the big boys, the truth is only one thing stands between the 20-year-old Flames defenceman and one of the league's most coveted awards: Health.

As in, the health of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

Unless both of the ridiculously gifted snipers suffer major injuries in the near future, Phaneuf will continue to find himself on the outside looking in at a Calder quest dominated by two No. 1 draft picks living up to lofty expectations.

As evidenced by their maiden NHL tete-a-tete last night, which was preceded by a dual conference call and comparisons between Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux's first meeting, the award is theirs to sort out.

Rightly so, scribes from around the league flocked to Pittsburgh for the clash of rookie titans seen as ushering in the new era of playmaking and goal scoring. And those who watched weren't disappointed.

Seizing the moment as Gretzky and Lemieux always did, Crosby and Ovechkin dazzled all night.

Scoring once and setting up the game-winner, Crosby brought the hockey world to its feet with a stellar solo effort. He kicked the puck to his stick, split the defence, froze goalie Olaf Kolzig and roofed his 11th.

On a team of superstars, Crosby outshone them all once again.

Ovechkin was equally as entertaining, dangling and driving to the net with unmatched panache.

Two true superstars.

That leaves Phaneuf.

A budding star in his own right, none of this is to disparage or discredit Phaneuf who sits a solid -- but distant -- third in the star-studded Calder chase.

As a defenceman playing in the West, he simply doesn't have a chance to counter their universal appeal.

Leading all rookie defenceman with five goals and nine assists in

23 games, he's tied for sixth in overall rookie scoring with hotshots Alex Steen, Mike Richards and Jussi Jokinen.

Adding a physical element no other NHL newbie could dream of, the statuesque Phaneuf is already known around the league as a punishing hitter.

His slapshot -- around which the Flames powerplay is built -- is also creating a buzz, not to mention plenty of offence.

On a team with the NHL's deepest blueline, he's averaging almost

22 minutes of ice time a night, leading all rookies by more than two minutes.

Any other year and he'd be the quarter- pole frontrunner to claim a trophy previously won by Flames Sergei Makarov, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Suter.

Suter's win in 1986 provides the one sliver of hope for Phaneuf, given the fact Suter outlasted early favourites Kjell Dahlin and Wendel Clark that year.

The same won't happen here.

There's too much star power with Crosby and Ovechkin, who both drop jaws every time they're on the ice.

Barring injury, it's clear Phaneuf has the talent, poise and profile to earn a free tux rental and ticket to the spring awards banquet. But he'll leave empty-handed.

Make no mistake, as someone who is already ahead of Al MacInnis or Suter at his age, Phaneuf's trophy collection will eventually include a Norris or two.

On that, we can all agree.

Better yet, a Stanley Cup -- a trophy he has a better shot at obtaining than Sid or Alex anytime soon.


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