Time on Phaneuf's side

Calgary Flames' Dion Phaneuf. (Edmonton Sun file Photo/Darryl Dyck)

Calgary Flames' Dion Phaneuf. (Edmonton Sun file Photo/Darryl Dyck)

RANDY SPORTAK, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 12:55 PM ET

The numbers along Dion Phaneuf's name on the stats sheet nearly light up.

In the season opener, the Calgary Flames defenceman fired three shots on goal, recorded five hits and collected a pair of assists -- including one when Daymond Langkow deflected his powerplay point shot.

But the eye-popping digits from the 3-2 loss to Philadelphia Thursday night fall under the category of minutes played: 31:20.

On a team that boasts a pair of big-minute defencemen in Adrian Aucoin and Robyn Regehr, it was the 22-year-old blueliner who racked up the most ice time.

"Yeah, we see the sheets," Phaneuf said. "You play when you're asked to play. When you get tapped to go, it's your job to go out and do your job.

"Some nights it may be more and some nights it may be less, but when you're asked to go, you go out and do your job."

It's not the first time Phaneuf has cracked the 30-minute barrier. He did it five times last season.

However, it very well may be an early view of what's to come.

Now in his third season, the former Calder Trophy finalist should be taking his game to a new level. Scouting reports and prognosticators have called Phaneuf a future No.-1 defenceman, a Norris Trophy winner and a sure-fire star since he was drafted ninth overall in 2003.

You can't deny his first two years have been very successful, a 20-goal, 49-point rookie campaign followed by a 17-goal, 50-point season last year.

There aren't many defencemen with more goals in their first two seasons, and we're talking about the likes of Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Phil Housley.

Still, with Phaneuf you know there is plenty of untapped potential.

And he knows it.

"I have to get better," Phaneuf said. "I have to keep improving, keep getting better and taking steps to be up in that elite group in the National Hockey League."

All he needs to do is look at another great young rearguard who was coached by Flames bench boss Mike Keenan and developed into a star: Chris Pronger.

When Pronger arrived in St. Louis, traded from Hartford for Brendan Shanahan, he was young and talented but not yet ready to become the Norris and Hart Trophy player.

Phaneuf -- who is well ahead of Pronger's achievements in his first two campaigns -- will be pushed to find that next level.

And he's OK with it.

"You want a coach that pushes you, that's for sure," Phaneuf stated. "But both coaches I've had here in the past have been guys that push.

"You definitely want a coach that pushes you and wants to get the best out of you."

This season, it's meant a couple of big adjustments.

Phaneuf has been moved to the left side. In his first two campaigns, he patrolled the right side -- a mean feat being a left-handed shooter.

He's also been forced to adjust to a new partner. Most of the his past two seasons, he was paired with the talented but sometimes erratic Roman Hamrlik. Through training camp, the pre-season and Thursday's clash, Phaneuf mainly skated with Cory Sarich, who isn't as skilled but much steadier.

"I like playing with Sarchie. He talks a lot, has a lot of experience, has won before," Phaneuf said. "I want to keep learning from the older guys we have in here. We found some chemistry, started to gel after playing a few times in the pre-season together and (the opener)."

With Sarich, Phaneuf can put himself in trouble by being too rambunctious on the ice, playing with too much aggression.

But Sarich's controlled game can provide something of a calming influence on Phaneuf, yet give him the security to take chances.

"Yeah, but Dion's got the legs. His skating is so strong, if he happens to get beat a bit on a play, he's right back in the play. Danny Boyle was the same in Tampa Bay, he could go out and take chances and skate back into it," said Sarich.

"Some of us have to think the game a bit before we move out there, and need to use our positional play to be as effective as we can. That's the way I play, so I try to be in position as often as I can. That seems to complement his style."


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