Big Phans of Dion

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

Even before Dion Phaneuf slipped on a Calgary Flames sweater, the predictions were made.

Without even skating in an NHL game, belief was the talented defenceman had a future that included one or more Norris Trophy accolades.

Now, in the midst of his third season, is that a fair belief? Does Phaneuf's destiny include being the NHL's best defenceman?

"Oh yeah," said Flames centre Craig Conroy without flinching. "You look at the guys who are the top defencemen in the league -- (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Chris) Pronger, (Scott) Niedermayer, (Brian) Rafalski, even, is up there. How many are young guys? How many young, young guys can you say that about? You've got maybe (Jay) Bouwemeester, (Brian) Campbell and a few others creeping in, but I don't think they've established themselves the way Dion has already.

"He's gonna develop and be even more dominating."

Conroy was in St. Louis when another young and uber-talented defenceman began to take his game to a new level.

He witnessed first-hand as Pronger went from a highly touted youngster to the top defenceman and league MVP for the Blues.

The similarities between Pronger and Phaneuf are easy to find. Both have great skill, great size and great determination.

"When I first got to St. Louis, Pronger wasn't as offensive as he is now. We had Steve Duchesne and Al MacInnis on the first powerplay, so he got second powerplay time. But he'd play almost the whole two minutes of the penalty kill," Conroy said. "Dion's got more upside on offence, but Pronger was better defensively at this age.

"There is a comparison between the two."

At 22, Phaneuf -- whose next outing will be the NHL All-Star Game Sunday in Atlanta -- has already achieved plenty.

The 2003 first rounder became only the third defenceman in league history to notch 20 goals in his rookie season, after which he finished third to Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in the rookie-of-the-year voting for the Calder Trophy.

In his second season, he was selected for the all-star showcase.

This year, he was voted by the fans to start alongside Lidstrom, one of the best defencemen in NHL history.

"The biggest pressure put on him comes from himself," said fellow defenceman Anders Eriksson. "He wants to be the best player every night, and that's a great thing. Not a lot of people have that desire."

The fun part for Flames fans -- provided the pending restricted free agent re-signs a deal with the team and isn't poached in the summer -- will be watching Phaneuf go to that next level.

"Experience," said head coach Mike Keenan, who can rattle of a litany of incredible defencemen he's coached. "It's the same as Chris Pronger. Chris Pronger learned the game, learned his role, learned more about the game, learned about his ability, learned how to control a game, learned how to set a standard, learned how to lead a group. All those aspects lie ahead of Dion.

"How many playoffs has he played? Two series and lost two. He has those aspects of his game to look forward to. Chris Pronger said he learned a great deal about himself, about the NHL and his team when we went to the conference semifinals and got beat in Game 7 in overtime (by Detroit in 1996). He said that was the series that made him realize what he can do."

Just as interesting will be seeing what Phaneuf does in the future to go to the next levels.

His booming shots and bone-crunching body checks earn plenty of attention. His icetime on a team that includes the likes of Regehr, Cory Sarich and Adrian Aucoin -- an average of 26 minutes and 42 seconds in nearly five full minutes ahead of the No.-2 Flame in that category, Jarome Iginla -- proves he's already valued.

Yet, there are still elements to his game Phaneuf needs to improve.

For example, Conroy said, the ability to make long, tape-to-tape passes. Another is perfecting shot-passes from the point instead of bombing pucks at the net, the way Al MacInnis would fire a shot that was really a hard pass to Pierre Turgeon at the side of the net for the easy goal.

"Those things are just time," Conroy said. "Once those little things come for Dion -- which they will, it's just a matter of time since he's started doing it in practice -- he'll bring more weapons and dynamics to his game."

But there will also be other, more subtle things, pointed out Eriksson, who's spent a big chunk of the season paired with Phaneuf. Remember, early in his career, Eriksson played with the likes of Lidstrom, Larry Murphy, Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov ("It was almost overwhelming because you're trying to learn from them all").

"Dion is always very intense, always cares about the team, wants to be the leader -- leading the attack, lead the defence, do everything -- and in the game of hockey, you can't; you have to contain that and wait for your opportunities to do something. Sometimes less is more, and he will learn that as he goes," Eriksson said. "I think he's maturing. He's right on track to be a tremendous player for a long, long time."

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PHANEUF PHACTS

DEFENCE, 6-FT.-3, 212 LBS. APRIL 10, 1985

DRAFTED 9TH OVERALL IN 2003

Season GP G A Pts Pim +/-

2005-06 82 20 29 49 93 5 * Third rookie defenceman to score 20 goals

2006-07 79 17 33 50 98 10

* Selected to NHL All-Star Game

2007-08 50 6 26 32 93 4

* Named starter at all-star game


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