SUN Hockey Pool

Fans set shakeup's stage

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

So much for the notion Darryl Sutter isn't in tune with his team's fan base.

While the Flames GM would never admit it, he did exactly what the bulk of Calgary hockey fans have wanted him to do for some time -- trade Dion Phaneuf.

Right or wrong, Dion Phaneuf couldn't have lasted here much longer.

There was simply too much anger directed at Calgary's favourite whipping boy for the young defenceman to regain any semblance of the popularity he once enjoyed.

Make no mistake, Sutter didn't make the move to appease a fan base that is rapidly losing faith and enthusiasm for the team.

But it's an appealing byproduct.

Despite his stubborn denials a week earlier, Sutter needed to shake things up to give his club any chance of making the playoffs or erasing their first-round losing skid.

His only position of strength came via the blueline and with Mark Giordano emerging as a fan favourite and long-term keeper, Phaneuf became the juiciest trade bait.

After all, he still has the most potential.

For the first three years of his pro career it was that potential, combined with a deadly one-timer, a penchant for punishing forwards and a million-dollar salary that made him the talk of the town.

However, once he signed a six-year, $39-million deal, the expectations rose to unreachable heights while the number of hits and fights that helped make him so endearing plummeted.

So did the goals, the assists and the edge that made him so dangerous in every way. While his most ardent detractors went as far as to suggest No. 3 "wasn't trying," the reality was he came across as being aloof both on and off the ice.

He didn't endear himself to the media and that was easily conveyed to the general public who wondered, like many media types, why the fabulously wealthy and talented 24-year-old appeared to have such a chip on his shoulder.

By offering nothing but monotone cliches and often challenging the most routine of questioning, Phaneuf lacked the sort of goodwill a person like Jarome Iginla had built up by being fan friendly and accommodating to the media.

Was he misunderstood?

You bet he was, say team public relations handlers who forever tried to get Phaneuf to show how "happy-go-lucky" he was when the cameras disappeared and he was amongst peers.

Did he get a raw deal from the fans? He did to some degree, but that's partially his fault for not doing better to cultivate his public persona.

He's still a hell of a hockey player no matter how down locals got on him for his defensive lapses.

It's irrelevant now as the suddenly humbled Phaneuf was apprised of his new address and sent to Toronto Sunday with Freddie Sjostrom and prospect Keith Aulie.

Ian White can fill Dion's even-strength minutes, Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman add much-needed offensive depth and Jamal Mayers brings fourth-line grit.

A good deal for both teams.

Interestingly, Flames fans aren't the only ones applauding the departure of Phaneuf -- so are the Flames' closest rivals. Players in cities like Vancouver, Colorado, Phoenix and Edmonton were thrilled to hear the fiercest hitter in the NHL would no longer patrol Calgary's blueline.

In that regard, the Flames might not be easier to beat now, but they just got a little easier to play.

If Sutter trades Olli Jokinen as an encore, he will have cleansed the franchise of its two most unpopular players.

Of course, it's all purely coincidental as Sutter insists he couldn't care less what the masses think.

Then again, just last month he insisted Phaneuf was safe and the core needn't be disrupted. Who knows what to believe around the Dome anymore as a GM, a team and a fan base seem to have more questions than answers these days.

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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