SUN Hockey Pool

Phaneuf dusts off old sticks

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

Santa reunited Dion Phaneuf with some old friends.

Time will tell if he can duplicate past success with them.

At yesterday's practice, the Calgary Flames defenceman was firing bullets with the bright green Easton sticks he mainly used the past few seasons. This year, he'd switched.

Seeing as he heads into tonight's clash against the Ottawa Senators with only three goals, could it be he's trying something -- anything -- to change his luck?

"I don't even know if I'm going to use it," Phaneuf said. "I was just trying it. It has nothing to do with the stick, I'll tell you that."

As his team readies to face the slumping Senators, Phaneuf is a study of the glass being both half-full and half-empty.

On one hand, he has just three tallies -- not exactly on pace with previous seasons. He scored 20 goals in his rookie year and 17 in the last two campaigns.

On the other hand, the blueliner has 23 points, which is close to being on target for his career-high.

On one hand, he's a minus-11, which puts him near the bottom of the league.

On the other hand, he's tops in the NHL with an average of nearly 28 minutes of ice-time per game.

Phaneuf would never bare his soul and say he's frustrated, but he insisted he's aware of how things have gone so far this season and isn't going to fret.

"The bottom line is we're winning hockey games, and we're in first place in our division (heading into last night)," Phaneuf said. "Am I happy I'm a minus? No. Am I going to work on that? Yeah.

"Am I happy I have three goals? No. Is that part of the game? Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don't. Yeah.

"You just keep playing the same way."

Who knows? Maybe a change in weapon will change those offensive fortunes.

It couldn't hurt, could it?

"They're both basically the same stick, just different paint jobs," said Phaneuf, who has gone 17 games without a goal and has just one marker in 24 contests. "Sometimes they go (in), and sometimes they don't. It's definitely not from a lack of getting pucks on the net, I've had a lot of shots."

Last season, Phaneuf had a lengthy goal-scoring drought -- 17 games -- around this time of year, but he caught fire down the stretch with 11 tallies and 17 assists in the final 32 regular-season games.

That's proof the numbers can turn around in a hurry.

Head coach Mike Keenan isn't worrying about the player who was a Norris Trophy finalist last season.

"He's played well," Keenan said. "He's 23 years old. There aren't many people in the league at 23 years of age that can play as well as he plays.

"People forget he's only 23 years of age. It's a big step to play in the NHL, period, and then to play defence in the NHL and be a top defender in the league at 23, it's, in my opinion, a really positive accolade he can take that type of ice time."

Keenan could easily give some of that ice time to other Flames. Robyn Regehr, for one, could handle extra minutes. Adrian Aucoin has been among the league's big-minute players in seasons past.

For all the critics picking apart Phaneuf's game, Keenan did point out the fourth-year NHLer has stepped forward in some aspects of his game.

Phaneuf has taken on more penalty-killing duties, which has put him into the level of the big-minute blueliners.

"That's a contribution in itself," Keenan insisted. "He'll pick up his points offensively, whether they're goals or a combination of goals or assists, and he continues to learn ...

"There's not much he's not asked to do, and he's learning his position and getting better at it."


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