The competitive fire still burns brightly inside Dion Phaneuf.
After a career that has included more than 1,000 NHL games and a season that featured more lows than highs, it would have been understandable if Phaneuf wanted to take a step back when the Los Angeles Kings bought out his contract earlier this month.
Instead, the 34-year-old intends to dive head-first into free agency as a UFA for the first time on July 1.
"One bad year is not going to define me," Phaneuf said Friday from his off-season home on Prince Edward Island. "I know I’ve got lots of hockey left."
The biggest reason he believes that is he still feels motivated to look for edges in the gym and still loves the game. He also looks back over a 14-year career and sees last season as an outlier rather than a predictor of things to come.
Phaneuf thinks he has plenty to offer if placed in the right situation. His top priority is joining a team with a chance to win and seems genuinely enthused despite the uncertainty that comes with being a veteran free agent.
"It’s not stressful," he said. "I’m excited for another opportunity. A couple teams have already reached out, which is nice."
Phaneuf doesn’t shy away from the fact he needs to bounce back from a season where he set career lows across the board – average time on ice (15:00), shots (80), points (6), you name it.
But there were some extenuating circumstances because of a disastrous Kings campaign that made no individual player look good. If you dig below the surface, Los Angeles actually fared reasonably well while Phaneuf was on the ice in sheltered usage (controlling 49.1 per cent of even-strength shot attempts) and there appears to have been some bad shooting and save percentage luck involved in his low outputs.
Still, Phaneuf figured he was a buyout candidate with all of the rebuild talk in Los Angeles at season’s end. It really started to become clear the organization was heading in a different direction when new head coach Todd McLellan didn’t reach out after his hiring and the Kings wound up terminating the last two years of his contract on June 15 – the first day of the NHL’s buyout window.
He holds no ill-will towards the organization and hasn’t let it affect his off-season.
Phaneuf and his wife went on a 10-day cruise in Europe shortly after the year ended and he’s been back working out on P.E.I. ever since. Earlier this week, he co-hosted the annual Special Olympics Gala in Charlottetown with figure skater Tessa Virtue and saw it set a record with more than $250,000 raised.
"Life is good," he said, at the outset of our chat.
Phaneuf is taking an open mind to free agency and seeing what comes his way.
This is not a particularly deep class of free-agent defencemen, with Jake Gardiner and Tyler Myers as headliners. Ben Hutton has drawn interest after not getting qualified by Vancouver. Then there’s a pool of veterans that includes Anton Stralman, Marc Methot, Dan Girardi, Ron Hainsey, Adam McQuaid, Andrew MacDonald and Phaneuf.
At six-foot-four and 220 pounds, Phaneuf saw the recent Stanley Cup victory by the St. Louis Blues as more proof that he can be of service to a NHL team.
"I’m a bigger defenceman and I still think you see value in that," he said. "Look at the team that won this year. They had a lot of big guys back there."