PHILADELPHIA -- As hard as he tries to shy away from the spotlight, it is virtually impossible for Dion Phaneuf to fly under the radar.
The towering Calgary Flames defenceman has been simply stunning during his remarkable NHL rookie season, though he's not usually among the first two names mentioned when discussion turns to the Calder Cup trophy recognizing the league's top rookie.
Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, the first overall selections in 2005 and 2004 respectively, are attracting the major headlines but the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Phaneuf is turning heads with his crushing checks and ability to move the puck and rack up points.
What's hard to believe was that at this time last year, Phaneuf was among the talented group of individuals rolling into the MTS Centre in Winnipeg to begin a journey which would eventually lead to a dominant World Junior Hockey Championship performance in Grand Forks, N.D.
The scary thing is that Phaneuf is as noticeable in his jump to the NHL as he was manning the point along with defence partner Shea Weber last December and January.
Phaneuf said playing for Brent Sutter at both the world juniors and with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League really prepared him for the transition to the NHL and also for playing for Flames head coach and general manager Darryl Sutter.
"Brent runs his organization like a professional organization and treats his players like professionals, so it definitely helped," Phaneuf said after facing the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night at the Wachovia Center. "It was an experience of a lifetime, something you'll never forget. It's an unbelievable tournament, the level of hockey is very high and the players are very skilled. It was a great experience. Anytime you win, you have a special bond with those guys. It's great to see so many guys doing well and I wish them all the best."
Despite all of his early-season success, Phaneuf understands there will be bumps along the road.
"It's a process and I have to keep improving every day," said Phaneuf, who had six goals and 15 points in 29 games going into last night's game with the New Jersey Devils. "That was my goal from the first day of camp, just to keep getting better and learning as much as I possibly can from the older, veteran guys in our room that are great leaders."
Flames assistant coach Jim Playfair says that Phaneuf is taking tremendous strides for a young defenceman.
"He certainly has a lot of strong attributes to his game," said Playfair. "He's a big guy, a physical player and the big thing about Dion is that he's a good learner. He really understands there is another level of development he wants to get to now."
Phaneuf already plays a prominent role on the Flames defence and gets ample time on the power play, partly because of his heavy shot. He's also paying attention to detail in his own zone.
"Dion has handled himself very well and what I like is that he's always found a way to rise to the occasion at every level he's played at," said Playfair, who is not concerned about the perceived lack of support for Phaneuf as a Calder Cup candidate. "We don't think about that at all actually. That's an individual trophy that is totally out of our control. It's way more important for us to view the development of Dion and the minutes he's playing. We want him to develop into a long-term, high-end defenceman in the NHL for the Calgary Flames, that's what we focus on."