Much has changed for Dion Phaneuf since he arrived in Toronto nearly four years ago. The 28-year-old former Norris Trophy nominee was unceremoniously sent packing from the Calgary Flames for a group of Toronto’s spare parts back in February 2010, brought in to spearhead a much-needed culture change in the Toronto dressing room.
In Toronto, Phaneuf has been given a role he was not accustomed to in Calgary, that of the number-one, three-zone defender. Phaneuf is expected to lead the Leafs’ defensive corps in all situations, on the penalty kill and with the man advantage, often playing upwards of 26 minutes per night, and nearly always being matched up against opposing teams’ star players. Phaneuf has sometimes struggled in this role, mental mistakes such as his ill-advised hit on Nathan Horton in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs, which cost the Leafs the game and put them down three games-to-one in the series. But Phaneuf, mistakes and all, has become the Leafs’ most important player and the only one they need to consistently win games. Missing Joffrey Lupul for much of last season did not stop the Leafs from being a playoff team, nor did Phil Kessel’s goalless drought at the start of the year stop them from getting off to a hot start. However, when Phaneuf had bad games, the team could rarely persevere.
As the team’s only proven top-pairing defender, Phaneuf is always relied upon to play the toughest minutes on the team. Rarely is he given a shift against members of the opposing team’s bottom six. Phaneuf’s relative quality of competition ranked third in the league last season (minimum 10 games played), showing his role as a shutdown defender. He also started only 41.3 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone. Despite this, Phaneuf still finished 10th in scoring among defensemen with 28 points.
With statistics like that, it can be hard to understand why Phaneuf is on the receiving end of so much criticism from fans and media alike. I feel that it’s his unfortunate habit of making mistakes late in games like the aforementioned Nathan Horton hit, or his poor defensive coverage in untimely moments, such as late in Game 7 against the Bruins. Phaneuf’s decision-making is often blamed for this, but I think it’s a different, less-discussed reason. I don’t think his decision-making is the problem, because he rarely makes those mistakes early in games, they often come later, when Phaneuf has exhausted himself and his abilities. This could be the pressure getting to him or it could be his lack of cardiovascular endurance. Phaneuf’s best work comes in games when he is relied on less to play big minutes, this is easily seen by his stats when playing under 25 minutes versus his stats playing over that threshold. In the 25 games last year where Phaneuf played under 25 minutes, he racked up eight goals and 14 assists, as well as being a plus-six, with the Leafs winning 15 of the 25 games. In the other 23 games where he played over the 25-minute mark, Phaneuf scored just one goal, had five assists, and was a minus-10, while the Leafs won only 10 games.
Given those statistics, a couple of things become plain as day: Phaneuf must return to Toronto next year on a new contract. The Leafs simply do not yet have the high-end defensive talent to let him slip away in free agency. Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson and Morgan Rielly could all occupy top-pairing roles in their careers, but are all still relatively raw and need more time to develop before they will be able to handle grueling top-pairing minutes. The final conclusion I draw is that the Leafs need for a minute-eating defensive defenseman is important for more than just improving shot differential and possession. It is also needed should the Leafs ever plan to get Phaneuf to return to the lofty heights he set in his days in Calgary. Andrew Ference‘s services could have been acquired on July 5th but unfortunately, the money was spent elsewhere.