Thursday night’s matchup between two of the NHL’s worst teams will be one worth watching if only to see how Calgary fans treat former Flame Dion Phaneuf in his return to the Pengrowth Saddledome.
As everyone surely remembers, Phaneuf was deemed expendable and even a troublemaker last season when he was shipped to Toronto. Lost in the shuffle at the time of the deal was defenceman Keith Aulie, a 6-foot-5, 217-pound man-child who played a little more than half an American League season last year before having his campaign ended by shoulder surgery. The 21-year-old graduated this year and is now seeing duty with the big club in Toronto.
At the time of the deal, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said he wouldn’t have pulled the trigger if Aulie wasn’t part of the trade. Toronto fans are now beginning to see why.
And it’s ironic that a Flames team dealing from a perceived position of strength back in January 2010 – the blueline – could now use just what Aulie offers.
He’s a shutdown guy with an albatross-like wingspan who once pulled his dad from a frozen pond back home in Rouleau, Sask. And, as he acclimates to the NHL, Aulie has taken to making smart, safe plays and doesn’t seem at all awed by the big league.
When Calgary traded for and signed Jay Bouwmeester in June 2009, the Flames vaulted to the top of the D-corps charts. Then they moved the flagging Phaneuf in part because of a rumored dressing room divide and assuming Bouwmeester would simply take over the role of the go-to offensive option.
While divesting themselves of Phaneuf’s $6.5-million salary cap hit was a must do for the Flames, Bouwmeester hasn’t exactly stepped up to become an elite offensive defenseman. Neither has Phaneuf, so it’s a saw-off there.
But as Aulie continues to progress, Calgary is stuck with regressing talents like Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich and Steve Staios on the back end. A tower of power just a couple of seasons ago, Regehr now looks like he can’t keep up in the younger, faster NHL. Is he still a decent player? Yes, but he’d be much better suited to a top-flight team as a strong No. 4 or 5 guy. His days of being a premier shutdown defenseman appear to have passed him by.
Maybe Aulie won’t become what Regehr once was, but for more than $4-million per season, Regehr is a diminishing asset. Aulie at less than $750,000 is a bargain and as good as Regehr right now anyway.
Soon the Phaneuf trade will look more like a straight salary dump, one in which Calgary had to give up a top prospect just to foist money onto Toronto’s cap.
This article was originally published in Metro News. For more hockey commentary, check out Metro Sports.