TRENTON, ONT. - With the Calgary Flames making their annual visit to the Air Canada Centre on Saturday, it was interesting to hear the recent comments made by ex-Leaf Matt Stajan about the criticism being heaped on him in Cowtown.
“There’s always a whipping boy in every city,” Stajan told reporters two weeks ago.
My, how times have changed.
It wasn’t so long ago that the “whipping boy” in Calgary was defenceman Dion Phaneuf. Whether it was his gruff behaviour at times with the press or his underachieving play in the minds of Flames supporters, it was obvious the city’s patience with Phaneuf had run out.
In fact, within a week of the blockbuster Jan 31, 2010 trade that brought Phaneuf, blue line prospect Keith Aulie and forward Fredrik Sjöström to the Leafs for Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Ian White, the notion that an entire community’s fan base had soured on Phaneuf was confirmed by Olli Jokinen, his former teammate in Calgary.
“The biggest thing is, (Phaneuf) wasn’t accepted by the Calgary fans, even though he was once a Norris Trophy candidate,” Jokinen told QMI Agency at the time.
Now the shoe — or skate, as the case may be — seems to be on the other foot, with Stajan being the one taking the heat.
Indeed, when dissecting that stunning six-player deal of 21 months ago, the logical conclusion you come up with is that the Leafs were the big winners.
And that the Flames were fleeced.
Toronto is not the only place where people feel that way. According to esteemed colleague Steve MacFarlane, who works in Calgary, the Phaneuf deal generally is now considered to be the second-worst trade in Flames history, trailing only the Jan. 2, 1992 doozy in which Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, Kent Manderville and goaltender Rick Wamsley were shipped to the Leafs for Gary Leeman, Alexander Godynyuk, Jeff Reese, Michel Petit and Craig Berube.
If you examine closely the parties involved in the Phaneuf deal, it is understandable to see why Toronto is considered to be the big winner.
Let’s start with Phaneuf, who left Calgary amid allegations that he was disliked as much by some of his teammates as he was by the fans. As such, there was a collective chuckle coming out of Alberta when he was named the Leafs captain several months after the trade.
Laugh if you want, but there can be no denying that Phaneuf has made every effort to be a leader to his teammates and accommodating to the media. For that he deserves credit, even if the odd cynic still might question his sincerity.
Shortly after accepting the “C,” Phaneuf invited top prospect Nazem Kadri to PEI to spend time together and let the kid know what was expected of him. This past summer, Phaneuf attended a gathering of the Toronto rookies to make them feel part of the team and to educate them on what it is to be a Leaf.
Even during the Leafs team bonding retreat here in Trenton, Phaneuf and Colby Armstong spearheaded a night out with teammates to munch on some wings and watch football. In fact, Phaneuf was said to have played a significant role in planning the activities here over the three days, a period which included some time at the rifle range and a flight on a C-17 military transport plane.
“We haven’t really had any time to be together on the road yet, so this was really productive for us off the ice,” Phaneuf said. “On the ice, it was like a second training camp.”
Phaneuf, for the record, says he still stays in touch on a semi-regular basis with Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
For forward Matthew Lombardi, who was a teammate with Phaneuf in Calgary, the evolution of Phaneuf as a captain comes as no surprise.
“As a young guy, he was always vocal,” Lombardi recalled. “But more importantly, he always worked hard, even in practice drills.
“I think Dion’s proven to be a good leader. Obviously he’s pretty outspoken. I just think he’s taken the next step here.
“He was one of the first guys to phone me when I was traded to Toronto.”
Whether you buy into the Dion love-in off the ice, it’s on the ice where he has been the most impressive.
At the end of last season, Phaneuf started showing the form that made him a Norris Trophy candidate during his first two seasons in Calgary, racking up five goals and seven assists in the month of March alone. He hasn’t missed a beat since then, starting off the 2011-12 campaign with a goal, two assists, a plus-four rating and a bone-crushing hit on the Ottawa Senators’ Stephane Da Costa on Saturday night.
Phaneuf’s improvement late last season coincided with the decision to pair him with the hulking Aulie on defence. Aulie did struggle at training camp last month and was shipped to the Marlies, but gobbling up minutes on the farm is not a bad thing for a kid with such a huge upside. In fact, it is believed that some members of the Flames front office advised then-GM Darryl Sutter not to include Aulie in the Phaneuf deal only to have their pleas ignored.
As for Sjostrom, he is playing in Sweden this season after registering 10 points in 85 games as a Leaf.
Meanwhile, the trade has been far less lucrative for the Flames.
Mayers bolted as a free agent while White was traded to Carolina, leaving Stajan and Hagman as the two remaining pieces of that deal that originally were sent to Calgary.
How has that worked out? Consider that during the Flames 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Monday, Stajan and Hagman, who combine to chew up $7 million US in cap space this season, were on the fourth line.
That’s an expensive fourth line.
Stajan was a stand-up guy in Toronto, but it’s obvious the four-year, $14 million deal he was given by Sutter shortly after the trade has made him a target among Flames supporters.
According to one published report out of Calgary, GM Jay Feaster was not impressed by Stajan’s “whipping boy” comment, feeling the forward needed to concentrate on making the most of his minutes.
When all is said and done, maybe the real “whipping boy” in this saga should be Darryl Sutter. After all, he’s the one who seems to have been taken to the cleaners by Leafs GM Brian Burke.