It's been a long time since Calgary has had THAT defenseman. The guy who was going to score goals and shut down the other team. Robyn Regehr has been a stalwart for years, but his offensive output is limited, relegating him to be simply a shut-down d-man... extremely important, but in a different regard. Dion has shown Calgary Flames fans and the league that he's going to be a superstar, and, more importantly, a winner.
Speculation began early this season that the Flames wouldn't be able to re-sign Dion and that they would trade the best young d-man in the game, Eklund speculated Jersey was involved; rumors that proved to have no legs. Then there were the rumors Dion wanted too much money and would wait until July 1st and prove it by getting Lowe'd on the open RFA market... with rumors swirling that it would be Lowe himself to make the big push. It all proved for naught and Dion signed a lucrative 6 year 39 million dollar deal to keep the Flaming C on his chest. Having a lot of faith in Darryl Sutter's contract negotiation's (see Iginla, Regehr, Kipper), I wasn't surprised nor did I believe any of the rumors. The announcement of the signing of Dion was a great day in the history of our franchise... little did we know that day would be the start of even bigger, better things out of Dion.
Listening to the 2004 NHL draft on the radio while I "worked" in the gas fields of southern Alberta, I knew very little about most of the defense prospects; the biggest of those being Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn and Dion. At #9 and seeing many teams with defensive needs ahead of us, I never thought we'd get one the top guys... in fact, I was just hoping we'd get the Hitmen's Ryan Getzlaf or maybe even Zach Parise, having seen him dominate the World Juniors for the US. Well, Suter went to Nashville and Coburn went to Atlanta and Dion fell right into Sutter's lap at number 9. I didn't know that this pick would be as coveted as it was, but it seemed like Sutter knew as he made Flames fans feel very comfortable with his pick, stopping just short of going Mike Ditka when the Saints landed Ricky Williams.
His rookie season was highly anticipated. Everyone had seen the highlights of Dion crushing anyone and everyone in the WHL with his body and his bullet from the point. We'd watched him crush the international competition nation-wide on two of the best World Junior teams Canada has ever pieced together.
Dion didn't disappoint. He scored 20 goals to be the first rookie since Brian Leetch to do so and fell just short of Leetch's record 23 goals. He finished with 49 points and a +5 and heading into the playoffs, the Flames were leaning on him a lot. The Flames lost to the Ducks in a heart-breaking series, had we won, we would have faced the Oilers in the first battle of Alberta in the playoffs since the early 90s. Instead, it was revealed Dion was struggling with a severe ankle sprain and knee problems that slowed him for the last month of the season and the playoffs. This obviously contributed to the Flames loss to the Ducks, but showed us another side of Dion, the side of him that wants to win SO bad.
His sophomore season began with Dion as the clear number 1 d-man in Cowtown. They tried to pair him with Regehr to start the season, but they couldn't get on the same page, so they kept him with Hamrlik for one more year. His second season was the one that taught him to be an NHL defenseman and credit can be given to Jim Playfair for this one. It was a long year for the Flames, and although it wouldn't be considered a re-build for the team, I would consider it a re-build for Dion. I can't even begin to remember how many times I saw Dion's man score on him when his back was to the play. He would spin around and the puck would already be in the net. By the end of the season, you never saw that happen to Dion. But another lesson learned was the difference that playoff hockey can bring as Dan Cleary showed him first hand with a devastating blow that it doesn't matter who you are in the NHL... and the playoffs, it's a whole new ball game. The target was on his back now, people wanted to pay Dion back for all the vicious body checks and for all the one-sided fights.
Which brings us to this season. The target is clearly on Dion's back. The opposing team's always send their agitator's at Dion, trying to goad him into fighting or trying to hit him at all times. It started as a learning process again... if you wanted to fight Dion, he would fight you and take his 5 minutes. Now, he doesn't waste his time with guys like Jared Boll... he fights with a purpose. He's becoming a complete player before our eyes as he's added some discipline and better defensive play to his already glowing offensive upside.
I wrote earlier this year about the comeback game against Pheonix where Keenan sat Sarich and paired Regehr with Phaneuf and we got a glimpse of what the pair could do together now. Pheonix never gained offensive control of the puck when Dion and Robyn were on the ice and the two d-men completely controlled the game and led the Flames back to the win. It was a sight to see.
Now, flashback to the signing of the big deal. 6 years, 39 million. Putting him up into the upper echelon of the NHL in terms of contract status. Many of the media here in Calgary felt we should have got him for 4-5 million and that he used his RFA status to negotiate more cash... could be... but I doubt it. He's clearly worth every penny of that deal and the proof has came since that signing.
The deal was formally announced on Feb. 6th but was well-known on the 5th... the importance of that??? Well, that was the day the Flames made the 3-goal comeback on the Coyotes that I just finished writing about. This was Dion's first game as a multi-millionaire. Aside from leading defensively with Regehr, he scored two goals and gave us a glimpse of what we'd now see from him every single night.
Before the deal... 53 GP 7 goals 26 assists 33 points +3 ... Really solid numbers that put him on pace to get right around the 50-55 point margin where he's spent his first two seasons. His +/- may be a touch low but he'd been playing with Anders Eriksson every night...
Since the deal... 22 GP 9 goals 14 assists 23 points +10 ... Numbers that put him not only right up with the best d-men in the league, but would put him offensively ahead of Niklas Lidstrom. And the best part is he just keeps looking better and better. The short-handed marker he scored against Minnesota on Saturday was one of the best goals of the year.
So that begs the question, does Dion deserve Norris Trophy consideration?
The answer is simple. Yes.
Will he win it? Probably not. My vote would go for Nik Lidstrom as you can probably make a point for Lidstrom to be nominated for the Hart as well as the Norris.
I won't list the candidates, but just the numbers for Dion.
2nd - goals by D
3rd - points by D
top 20 - +/-
I couldn't find the leaders for hits but he's always one of the leaders and is one of the most feared checkers in the league.
26:30, average ice-time, 5th in the league for D.
All of this while accumulating 165 minutes in penalties to lead the league for D-men. This can obviously be looked at as bad because he still takes too many stick penalties, but most of them are for sticking up for his teammates and himself as he's a marked man throughout the league... not only by the agitators, but by the refs, as every time there's a scrum, Dion head's to the box, something he's going to need to learn to deal with.
Dion Phaneuf was already one of the best defensemen in the NHL before his contract, now, he's elevated his play and should be one of the nominees for the Norris Trophy.