’09-10 Player Reviews: Dion Phaneuf

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    We’ve partnered up with Pension Plan Puppets to bring to you a Player Review series, where we will be evaluating and grading the 2009-10 season for every Leaf who featured in a significant number of games for the Blue and White last season, with an eye towards 2010-11. Today we feature Dion Phaneuf, profiled by Nikhil Daljeet:

    The Summary:

    The arrival of Dion Phaneuf in Toronto this year will undoubtedly be remembered as a significant moment in the annals of Maple Leafs history, for better or for worse.  The trade that Brian Burke engineered for the newest Leafs captain has been generally heralded as a wise maneuver for his Toronto club.  However, this transaction occurred after a full 2008-2009 season that saw a noticeable decrease in offensive output from Phaneuf (Flames management insisted it was due to injury).  Moreover, the 2009-2010 season gave way to a floundering Calgary team that was in severe need of a major shakeup and Flames GM Sutter did exactly that on January 31st.

    Dion’s effect on a young Maple Leafs squad was immediately apparent.  Team cohesion and work ethic skyrocketed and this translated to a noticeably higher level of on-ice success.  While his numbers were still not where they could be for a player of his caliber, he was strong at both ends of the ice.  If Captain Phaneuf could step outside of the slightly-superficial stream of polite and proper vernacular that is expected of a NHL leader, he would likely take up that popular Mark Twain saying: “The reports of my death (figurative, of course) have been greatly exaggerated.”

    The Good:

    I am writing this knowing that our reader base is rife with savvy hockey fans with an uncanny ability to properly assess on-ice performance.  Thus, I know most of you would agree that in a Toronto jersey, Phaneuf has shown an ability to play against the other teams’ best and more than hold his own.  Sadly, there are a plethora of parties in the hockey world (read: mainstream media, bitter Flames fans, spiteful Montreal supporters, etc.) that would have you believe Phaneuf is a bumbling mess in his own end.  Well, here are some facts and numbers to shut them up.  Phaneuf played against the second toughest competition amongst Toronto defensemen for the 2009-2010 season, alongside the second worst quality of teammates.  Furthermore, he still produced the highest Corsi relative to his quality of competition.  What this lovely set of relative statistics tells you is that while the critic will point at Phaneuf’s meager +1 on the season and question his defensive abilities, you can safely say it was completely circumstantial.  While Phaneuf is still prone to the occasional blunder, he displayed poise and patience in his time in Toronto and that is something fans should be very excited about.

    The Bad:

    Phaneuf’s offensive game has dropped off.  He has had seasons of 60, 47 and 32 points in the past three years.  While his numbers are still respectable, he clearly has a wealth of offensive talent that is being stifled. One of the problems is clearly the focus of the opposing team on Dion’s booming shot, as players desperately block Phaneuf’s shot attempts, especially on the powerplay.  This is painfully obvious as Phaneuf had the second-highest amount of blocks against his team when he was on the ice (second only to shooting-machine Alexander Ovechkin) just a year ago.  Yet an important (and seemingly disregarded) note to consider is that generally, most hockey savants know that a young defenseman focusing on improving his defensive game (as Dion has done—see above) will inevitably suffer (temporarily) on the offensive side of things.

    Another concern that has been raised: how will the captaincy affect Dion Phaneuf?  This is a question that nobody will be able to answer until next season, but you can be sure that it will be explored ad nauseam until the 2010-2011 Leafs take to the ice.  Many will raise very valid concerns that the added responsibility and pressure will hinder the rejuvenation of Phaneuf’s offensive output.  Often, young leaders will overcompensate and stray from their game in an effort to correct a problem that is very much public knowledge.  The impetus will be on Phaneuf to stay level-headed and remain true to his words: “I’m definitely not going to change … I’m going to be the same way I’ve always been.”  With slight alterations, a much-advanced level of comfort and familiarity in Toronto, and some more skill surrounding him (hopefully), Dion’s numbers will bounce back and he should easily regain his stride as a goal-scoring defenseman in the 50-60 point range.

    The Ugly:

    From an off-ice perspective, there are a few concerns that fall under the “ugly” category.  Chief amongst these is the oft-recited mantra that Phaneuf wore out his welcome in the Calgary dressing room, and that this end result is inevitable in Toronto.  While locker room speculation is frequently taken as fact, nobody can be sure of exactly what transpired with the dynamics of that Flames team.  The most widely accepted theory is that Phaneuf’s penchant for speaking his mind eventually rubbed off the wrong way on some his teammates, particularly veterans who may not have responded well to being told what to do by a much younger player.  Indeed, you have all likely encountered “that guy” at one point in your life: the one who doesn’t necessarily mean harm, but just won’t keep their opinions to themselves, regardless of the repercussions.  What we all need to realize is that the NHL is full of parties that are at times guilty of overemphasizing leadership roles and making preemptive conclusions in an area that is wholly subjective and conditional.  To put it simply: what happened in Calgary is NOT a foregone conclusion in Toronto.  The situation is entirely different.  Phaneuf has become the captain of an incredibly young squad that showed true signs of cohesion and togetherness when he rolled into town.  Moreover, the club has no long-standing veteran leader presence as Calgary did in Jarome Iginla and some of his colleagues.  This quote from Luke Schenn is perhaps the best endorsement of Phaneuf’s leadership capabilities:

    “He made a big impact when he came here … a real vocal guy, kind of you want to say, took over the room a little bit. A guy that plays hard. Plays whistle to whistle the right way, holds his teammates accountable. We had a quieter room until he got there. He’s always talking, always got something to say. You’re always on your toes when he’s around. He always makes you think what you got to do next shift or period. He’s not afraid to give you a kick in the butt if you need it.”

    Nobody can know for sure, but that definitely does sound like a bona fide captain.  Phaneuf will certainly mature with his role and his team.  Next season will be his first full trial, but if he continues to uphold this level of accountability and intensity, the future looks promising.

    Audience Participation:

    Rate Phaneuf below on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance relative to his potential and your expectations for the season.

    The Discussion:

    Have the Leafs made the right choice with their new captain?  What kind of season do you anticipate for Phaneuf next year?  How will his numbers look?

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