The Decline of Dion Phaneuf

The Decline of Dion Phaneuf

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Dion Phaneuf / Phil Kessel
Photo: NHL.com

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

“Personally, I think by a country mile he’s the best defenceman in the league. It’s not even close right now,” Ron Wilson said following a 4-3 win over the Penguins. “I think he’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s comfortable being the Captain, he’s healthy and I think without taking away from his play, the way Carl Gunnarsson’s played has made Dion’s job a lot easier. It’s just freed up Dion to play as best as I’ve ever seen him.”- Ron Wilson, Oct. 30st, 2011

It wasn’t too long ago that Dion Phaneuf was a 45-point lock on the backend for the Maple Leafs. If he had a good, healthy, puck-moving defenceman as his partner on the power play, he could probably eclipse that mark. That used to be the case, but it’s no longer a reality for Dion. As we will see in the numbers further below, Phaneuf’s numbers resurged in 2011-12 and 2012-13 but have fallen off again this season.

Full disclosure: I don’t think Dion Phaneuf has ever been the best defenceman in the league, let alone by a country mile. I will say that I think he is widely overlooked as being among the best in the league by a lot of people and is unfairly criticized for gaffes all defenceman are guilty of; they’re not of greater frequency for Phaneuf, or any less. There are millions of Leaf fans across Canada—and especially in Toronto—but a lot of them aren’t hockey fans and don’t watch other teams with regularity. If you watch enough of the good defenceman in the league, they get torched frequently. It comes with the territory.

Despite Phaneuf getting more criticism than ever, it’s not hard to see that he has evolved from a wild, open-iced hitting offensive defenceman and matured into an elite, two-way defenceman going up against—and shutting down—the best players in the world. While this is the case, it’s gone too far in one direction and it has crippled Phaneuf’s offensive production.

Tyler Dellow wrote an article outlining Dion’s increased defensive zone starts and dwindling shots for -— a hallmark for Phaneuf.

I don’t disagree with James that Phaneuf isn’t Pronger. He’s right about Phaneuf’s zone starts having become a lot more difficult as well. For the years in Calgary where we have data, he had a ZoneStart of 56.6%, meaning that 56% of his offensive or defensive zone faceoffs were in the offensive zone. From the time of this trade to Toronto through the end of 2011-12, this was 50%. In 2012-13, it was 41%. This year, it’s 39.3%. The road keeps getting steeper.

I think that there’s a little more too it than that though. As I mentioned back into the summer, I kind of got into breaking zone start effects down into their constituent elements by looking at how long we could see an effect after faceoff wins/losses in given parts of the ice. I haven’t tabulated this year’s number yet but I think that we can see a real Carlyle effect on this.

I’ve split Phaneuf’s career into three parts: 2007-10 in Calgary, 2010-12 in Toronto and 2012-13 in Toronto, which I’ve called TOR – Wilson and TOR – Carlyle, for obvious reasons.

It is striking the extent to which Phaneuf’s Corsi% just collapses following DZ faceoffs once Carlyle takes over. The personnel wasn’t that different in Toronto from the Wilson era to the Carlyle era but Phaneuf’s numbers just collapse. I’m not providing a ton of context here in terms of whether those numbers are good but I can assure you that they aren’t. The thing is though, we can tell from Phaneuf in Calgary and under Wilson that he’s capable of more.

The Leafs need to address the issues with the coaching and/or find a working defensive system that doesn’t sewer each and every one of their players’ possession numbers, first of all. As for Phaneuf specifically, while this has been a rough 6 or 7 games for him, the question remains not whether Phaneuf must go, but can the Leafs better supplement their 1D with more defensive talent and alleviate some of the taxing load shouldered by the Captain?

Back to his offensive production.

SeasonPts/gamePP pts/gameShots/gameSH%
2005-060.600.4038.3
2006-070.630.392.97.4
2007-080.730.403.26.5
2008-090.590.263.54
2009-100.400.202.85.3
2010-110.330.182.94.2
2011-120.540.272.55.9
2012-130.580.331.810.2
2013-140.430.151.86.1

It’s not hard to see where Phaneuf is being held back offensively; it’s on the powerplay, where he is currently putting up the worst powerplay-points-per-game rate of his career. He’s also shooting less than at any point of his career  (while it rounds to the same decimal, he shot fractionally more on a per-game basis last season).

Despite their powerplay ranking, Toronto has had a really rough time on the power play on the backend. Much of this has been masked by the play of their forwards, who made hay for much of the season. One of the most awkward things, which we talk about a lot around here, has been Phaneuf and Cody Franson on the blueline together on the power play. Phaneuf is a rare case as a defenceman who plays 5-on-5, PK and PP best when he’s on the right side despite being a left shot. The angles work better for him, his sweet spots on the boards are always in the same spot, and from a young age his slapshot was always used as a weapon in the arsenal of any team he was on. Under the guidance of Randy Carlyle and left in the hands of assistant coach Dave Farrish, Dion Phaneuf’s slapshot has been taken away in favour of “holding the line.”

It started to manifest itself in the playoff series against Boston last spring; Phaneuf, who is uncomfortable playing his correct side at both 5v5 and on the PK, and Franson, who is not the fleetest of foot on the best of days, are getting beat “holding the line” and are spending too much time in their own zone, giving up scoring chances against, unable to gain the zone with any efficiency and set up cleanly. It was disturbing that the coaching staff wasn’t able to recognize how obtuse it was having both shooters together in the playoffs; now, another 74 games later, the pair continues to play together with painful results offensively and it came to a head defensively as well when they were lit up for three shorthanded goals in the span of a week (shorthanded chances against are still occurring regularly, and nearly led to another SHG if not for a Bernier toe save versus St. Louis).

And yet, still, the coaching staff stubbornly keeps Phaneuf and Franson on their correct sides. While that is an egregious coaching error in and of itself, they aren’t a correct pairing to begin with.

With the help of data available at sportingcharts.com, we can see in the first chart Phaneuf’s shot location data on the powerplay for shots and goals. By having to make two touches on the puck — one to corral and settle it down, and another to wind up for a shot — there is just absolutely no efficacy to one of Toronto’s most dangerous powerplay threats. There is also a knock-on effect in that Kessel, as the primary puck carrier on the half wall, can be pressured more heavily and double teamed — which has been the case during this recent slide — with the opposition knowing that there is no real threat from the points. The same can be said on the other side for Franson and his dangerous slap-snap shot. Both have to take two touches and it’s compounded even further when they play catch with each other. It’s the main reason they get picked off on the points. The opposing penalty killers don’t have to respect the shot, and instead can cheat, pressure the points harder and take greater risks knowing that both are standing still trying to settle a puck down before taking a shot.

Two seasons under Carlyle/Farrish

Dion Phaneuf SOG
2013-2014 (74 games) / 2012-2013 (48 game schedule)

What does it look like when Phaneuf gets to use his one-timer and isn’t stuck on the left side?

Dion-Phaneuf-Shots-2011

And some more…

Dion-Phaneuf-Shots-2009

(2010 was skipped due to the injury from a skate slice injuring Phaneuf’s MCL).

Note the goals from the right side of the ice.

691 comments
B_Leaf
B_Leaf

Leafs Raptors and Jays all play at same time tonight

ConnorCrisp
ConnorCrisp

1) We squeak into the playoffs and get ruined by the bruins. RC keeps his job

2) We don't make the playoffs and RC gets canned.


Which one? GO!

ShiFty_D
ShiFty_D

@B_Leaf Well, I'll make this real simple. I hate basketball and I feel the same about baseball. LEAFS it is

mapleaf13
mapleaf13

@wiski  At least Philly's coach/management has the balls to play their over-paid players on the fourth line instead of sand-bagging the third line with a Lecavalier/Clarkson.

loomx
loomx

@wiski  I was just thinking, maybe they know that if they stick to a 4 line and because Randy is a line matching coach, they put Vinny on the 4th line and they'll outmatch us. Not that they wouldn't outmatch us anyway but still.

wendelsway1
wendelsway1

@ConnorCrisp  That's tough....Win or lose I always want our boys in playoffs.....but do want Carlyle gone.

vinoa
vinoa

@ConnorCrisp  I hate to say this but if it means no more Carlyle then gotta say 2. If we finish 7th* we could end up facing the Pens and who knows how far we can go.

vinoa
vinoa

@Shift_Disturber1 @B_Leaf  With basketball you literally only have to watch the last minute of play. In close matches that's when all the action happens.

ShiFty_D
ShiFty_D

@dlb eh @Shift_Disturber1The benefit of the doubt is going to be a hard sell in Leafs Nation. Sure there are things that haven't gone as expected. Can you imagine the toxicity around this team if they don't make the playoffs and the coaching staff remains intact, even if it's on a short leash. Not to mention if most of the roster remains as well. Yikes.


Pit has taken some heavy hits this year and still (with everything pointed out) remains comfortably atop their division with some breathing space in terms of time to sort it out.

Big difference IMO

vinoa
vinoa

@wendelsway1 @vinoa @Shift_Disturber1 @B_Leaf That's how it is for me. I can watch hockey all day and some football (American and European). Basketball just has way too much scoring for my liking. I still don't understand Americans' fascination with baseball.

wendelsway1
wendelsway1

@vinoa @Shift_Disturber1 @B_Leaf  I can watch hockey or lacrosse all day long.....and do watch football now and again.  Always enjoyed playing basketball, watching not so much....and baseball is boring as hell  IMO

loomx
loomx

@dlb eh @loomx  So let's just get Duncan Keith shall we? or how about Jonathan Toews? Let's just go get him. Either that or we can try and employ a system that works for OUR team with OUR players. If that system works all the time, why does nobody else employ it regularly? Maybe it's because every team is unique? I dunno.


We have a coaching staff that STILL doesn't think getting outshot is a problem.......come on.

loomx
loomx

@dlb eh @loomx  Go into the corner and battle for possession? Jay McClement is literally our worst puck possession forward. And by the way, I'm talking about throwing out the 4th line with 2 minutes to go, which is something Carlyle does regularly. But let's go with your idea. So he comes out to take the faceoff, let's say he wins it. then what? he's our worst possession player so don't pass him the puck. Best he can do is go to the net(JVR's spot) or run to the bench....wasting more time. The difference between Bozak and McClement in faceoff percentage is on average about 1 faceoff per game. 


You think Anaheim is going to throw out Mathieu Perrault out there instead of Getzlaf because he's better at faceoffs or because Getzlaf would take the faceoff on the wrong side? No! Put your best players on the ice. Randy and the whole team has endorsed Bozak as a true 1C in this league all year. What does that say when you don't put him on for a faceoff when your team needs a goal?.......in favour of Jay McClement.

loomx
loomx

@dlb eh @Belfour20/JB-45  Second of all, yeah, Chicago collapses. They certainly don't do it all game. Why? Because they have the puck for most of the game! Carved out roles or not, Carlyle doesn't have answers because he's a single-minded ancient coach. Same with Wilson. The comparison with Quenneville and the Hawks is hardly relevant.

loomx
loomx

@dlb eh @loomx  Not the guy with 3 goals. wow, that was a fairly easy decision. 

Bruffins
Bruffins

@dlb eh @loomx  

if losing...


JVR, Bozak, Kessel, Lupul, Kadri, Kulemin

Phaneuf, Gunnar, Rielly, Gardiner

loomx
loomx

@dlb eh @loomx  wait what? That's the reason why Carlyle plays Jay McClement in the last 2 minutes of  the game? That's the reason why he inexplicably plays Franson when he shouldn't play? That's the reason why Phaneuf plays the wrong side on the PP? All that because players have carved out roles?? I'm confused.

loomx
loomx

@dlb eh @loomx  Did they have Brandon Bollig play in the last 2 minutes of the game? Do they have their equivalent of Cody Franson(Sheldon Brookbank?) play at every important time of the game? Do they put Duncan Keith on the wrong side of the ice on the PP?

ConnorCrisp
ConnorCrisp

@LeafsManiac @Belfour20/JB-45 @wendelsway1 @ConnorCrisp  isn't that exactly what radio shows / blogs / fan sites are there for though? Venting emotions? I doubt coaches or GM's view this site or other fan supported media as a source of serious advice or anything like that.


That said, what do you think needs to happen? 

vinoa
vinoa

@LeafsManiac @vinoa @Belfour20/JB-45 @wendelsway1 @ConnorCrisp  No my picture is nothing more than an homage to my favourite player, Phil Kessel. I love him for his cookie affinity and even more for his elite play. I'm not an expert, wouldn't even claim to be. That's what I come here for. It's obvious that Carlyle's player usage is catching up to this team. We're extremely dependent on our 1st line and our bottom 6 can't be counted on for much. Our top PP unit can't have 2 over our slower players playing together. I don't know about all the collapse and 1-2-2 systems or anything of that nature. I've spent the better part of this season defending the Leafs but I'm not as steadfast in my belief that our coaching is as good as we're being told that it is. They said that the scoring chances were 5-3 in the 1st period of the St. Louis game. I'm not sure I even know what a scoring chance is any more.

vinoa
vinoa

@Belfour20/JB-45 @LeafsManiac @wendelsway1 @ConnorCrisp  RC's system hasn't been fine all year. They were always getting amazing goaltending and a reliable offense. This year I expected a better team because of Carlyle's success with the PK but that's gone too. He needed to try changing things up at the beginning of the injury issues. With 8 games to go can he even effectively change his approach?

ConnorCrisp
ConnorCrisp

@LeafsManiac @wendelsway1 @ConnorCrisp meh RC hasn't been too popular at all this year.. no 4th line, dubious defensive system, screwing with a functioning 2nd line, retarded PP assignments, playing people on their weak sides, Colton Orr, 'Just Ok' etc etc

vinoa
vinoa

@LeafsManiac @vinoa @ConnorCrisp  Look man, it was just a rant out of frustration. Yeah if the team wants to put in some of the crappy performances over the last couple of weeks then I'd rather them lose to get some change in the organization. That said, this was such a promising season and this team has looked like a sure playoff team up until the last two weeks. Earlier in the season we said it was because of injuries and the ebb and flow of an 82 game season. With 8 games to go you'd think that there would be a serious sense of emergency. They've been turning it on halfway through the game all year. I don't want them to finish in 9th in the East when they were 2nd in the division a couple of weeks ago.