The Decline of Dion Phaneuf

Dion Phaneuf / Phil Kessel

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

[pull_quote_center]“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[/pull_quote_center]

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.

[quote_box_center]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.[/quote_box_center]

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%

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, 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?


And some more…


(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.

  • Yan28

    Crazzy breakdown.

  • Savo43

    Holy shit…watching that video of 2011-2012…Makes me remember how good Phaneuf really is. Wonder if he’s still got that version left in him. He looked a lot quicker in those clips. Like i said he’s gotta be injured. Him and Lupul are the biggest differences that have cost us this year imo.

  • DeclanK

    Savo43  His slapshot is his thing and it’s been taken away from him. 

    Last time Phaneuf scored? Rielly was playing LD, he was playing RD and in > 20seconds he walked in and scored. He was put back on with Franson the next PP and they never generated a shot. 
    He’s being destroyed by the coach.

  • Savo43

    DeclanK Savo43  Good point. Furrrrrrk Randys decisions annoy me to shit lately. I pray that he stops being such a retard for the rest of the season.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    Savo43 DeclanK  Desperation going to smack sense into him? Likely the only that will restore common sense to the systems, the player usage and deployment will a slap from a pink slip.

  • Savo43

    Alec Brownscombe Savo43 DeclanK  I hope ge gets some sense smacked into him…this is our last shot at the dance. Fack i hope we make it.

  • Great Dane

    DeclanK Savo43 It is Carlyle continuing destruction of assets that is hurting this team. 

    When taking away Phaneufs best tool on the power play is hurt double: first of all missing number of goals but also minimize the confidence of the player.
    I strongly believe that with removing Carlyle he would get the same effect like the Ducks.
    We are still a #1 center, a top 2 d-man plus bottom lines capable of playing hard energy away from being a contender.
    Komorov, Kartikainen and the young Marlies together with Kulemin would be enough to find a solution to that problem.

  • Shift_Disturber1

    What this shows very clearly is he needs to shoot more. Which is also the same as the rest of the group.

    Specifically, looking at the last chart pairing 13/14 and 09/10 his shooting% is similar the difference in goals is 3 (on the season) but the difference in #of shots is incredible. 46 fewer shots, 46! That explains away that goal differential. Yes playing left side may contribute to that for reasons mentioned above but numerous left handed shooter’s manage to get shots off from the left side he needs to find a way.

    I’m all for splitting up the non working Franson/Phaneuf PP pairing, that should have been clear as day to anyone a long time ago. Gardiner and Reilly offer so much mobility and creativity not too mention clean zone entry’s and foot speed that one of these guys should be paired with one of Phaneuf and Franson respectively. It’s insanity that this hasn’t been done.

  • BingoDabber

    Shift_Disturber1  Are you seeing him pass up many shooting opportunities? I’m not

  • Shift_Disturber1

    @BingoDabber Shift_Disturber1What I’m saying is he isn’t generating enough shots. same as the rest of the team (not him specifically) for many reasons.  The PP has been neutered for quite a few games. Non adjustment by PP coaching staff, just keeps throwing the same shit at the wall but it isn’t sticking. What did Carlyle say about making adjustments on it the other day? Something about not wanting to look desperate? How about looking for something that works, something smart.

  • 4evrblue

    CanuckUKinToronto Shift_Disturber1 I thought he really settled his shot down last season. Took a little off to improve accuracy.

  • Burtonboy

    CanuckUKinToronto Shift_Disturber1  Actually that’s a popular misconception as well. I’ve read articles with stats that show Dion is actually above average

  • Shift_Disturber1

    CanuckUKinToronto Shift_Disturber1This article is more specific to the PP

  • MaxwellHowe

    Phanuef and Rielly should be paired now; I certainly think they’ll be paired next year.Franson and Reimer become trade chips for another D upgrade if necessary.  I say if necessary, because I expect someone with the Marlies will be ready for a lower pairing next year.

  • Burtonboy

    Shift_Disturber1 CanuckUKinToronto  Yes it it but it still shows his accuracy is not as bad as people make it out to be

  • Shift_Disturber1

    Burtonboy Shift_Disturber1CanuckUKinTorontodefinitely Declan (i think) also posted a breakdown of our D group that showed………Franson (I believe) as the least accurate of the bunch

  • MaxwellHowe

    Shift_Disturber1 Hard to shoot with the lack of ozone time this team gets.  How often in a game do the Leafs have an opportunity to set their dmen up on the points 5 x 5.  If you chugged a beer each time you saw it happen you would still be sober enough to perform brain surgery at the end of the game

  • Burtonboy

    Shift_Disturber1 Burtonboy CanuckUKinToronto  As far as I’m concerned its just another nail in Carlyle’s coffin

  • Shift_Disturber1

    MaxwellHowe Shift_Disturber1 again, I am speaking to the graphs, which are based on the PP

  • Shift_Disturber1

    Burtonboy Shift_Disturber1CanuckUKinToronto Sure, but also the PP coach and the PK coach need to go as well. He ain’t alone.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Shift_Disturber1 MaxwellHowe The thing about the #1 pp unit, it revolves around Phil.  It revolves around him coming off the half boards and firing that wrister with Franson and Bozak available for rebounds.  And if Phanuef and Franson trade places, it is tough for the right shooting dman, Cody Franson, to make that little pass to Phil. 
    Phil’s shots from that area can be very effective.  But maybe this suggests Gardiner / Rielly should be on the first unit, with the second unit focused around point shots from Franson and Phanuef.

  • mvw

    Not saying dion’s the only reason they’re faltering but he’s part of it if management doesn’t recognize then nothing changes and,probably won’t.

  • MaxwellHowe

    mvw pair h9im with Rielly next year, maybe upgrade the second pairing by using Franson/Reimer as trade chips, I think it would be a different story.

  • Knights2Leafs

    Thanks Declan.  This is from one of your posts below and couldn’t be more true:
    “He’s being destroyed by the coach.”
    Notwithstanding the collapse one good thing has come out of this season.  Nonis was able to get the Phil and Dion signed to long term deals before Carlyle was able to chase them out of town.

  • drummond

    Another issue – will Bernier handle back to back games? Normally the Leafs split the duties between both goalies. I guess, it will not be the case this weekend.

  • Knights2Leafs

    Couldn’t agree more.  So many of us are down on Lupul but you have to wonder is this simply a repeat of his time in Anaheim under Carlyle.

  • mvw

    Great Dane DeclanKSavo43 Is  Komorov still in our system and if he is why isn’t he playing for leafs?

  • Knights2Leafs

    Your comment about the PP revolving around Phil is true.  It means Dion’s rarely in a position to let a shot go.  If one of Gardiner or Rielly took Dion’s spot on PP1 and Phaneuf moved over to Franson’s spot, then we have a 3 pronged attack from the back three with the Phil and Dion being the primary shooters.

  • Knights2Leafs

    Congratulations to the Windsor Spitfires.  Yes they lost their series in 4 straight to the London Knights but they were successful in goading the Knights best goalie into an 8 game suspension and last night Ho-Sang caused one of London’s top 4 dmen to break his leg with a Alfredsson like push from behind.  It will be interesting to see if Branch/Baker will give Ho-Sang the same disciplinary treatment as the Knights got. I suspect I already know the answer.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Knights2Leafs Fair chance Ho-Sang could be a Leaf 1st round draft choice.

  • The_Real_Nonis

    Would poaching a world class coach from another team be considered unethical?  With TOR being the richest team in the NHL couldn’t they triple anybody’s salary (coach and coaching staff)?

    I’m talking about approaching a coach in secret and convincing them to quit in the off-season (maybe say that he is retiring), then picking him up a few weeks later.

    Would the fanbase be comfortable with the team embracing the dark side of the force?

  • mattyice74

    “Putting players in a position to succeed” Right!

  • MaxwellHowe

    The_Real_Nonis Oh we went over to the dark side long long ago. We cheered for the Habs last nite. Think about it.

  • MaxwellHowe

    CanuckUKinToronto The_Real_Nonis I like Dineen.  Seems to be a players coach.  Going into the women’s Olympic team in that situation and putting it all together has to count for something

  • Mind Bomb

    Good morning Folks 

    Game Day, Victory Day !

  • MaxwellHowe

    Mind Bomb the redemption begins

  • Mind Bomb

    MaxwellHowe Mind Bomb   I believe !!!!!!

  • The_Real_Nonis

    MaxwellHowe CanuckUKinToronto The_Real_Nonis  As long as we get rid of the guy who has trouble toasting a slice of bread, I’m on board.

  • LeafFan15

    5-0 Leafs Win 
    Bernier with the shutout
    Clarkson with the hattrick

    Make this happen Leafs

  • Mind Bomb

    CanuckUKinToronto drummond   IDK bro, can Bernier go into the Butterfly, I hope so

  • TuckerForPunishment

    How about those Habs?  lol
    Thanks Detroit for not beating them.

  • TuckerForPunishment

    MaxwellHowe The_Real_Nonis  I was cheering for Detroit to lose.  Will never cheer the Habs to win.

  • Mind Bomb

    CanuckUKinToronto Mind Bomb drummond   Aye its the second game of the back to back that I worry about

  • Great Dane

    CanuckUKinToronto Carlyle starts to make me sound intelligent when I make hockey comments.

    That is really really frightening.

  • Cameron19

    This left side right side thing is hilarious. Some fans on this board have been on this issue for over a year now. How is that a professional coaching staff can’t see what’s going on?  Can they also not see that almost every time Phaneuf switches to the right, even if it’s just for one second, he creates something positive out of it? It’s just embarrassing coaching.

  • dlb eh

    funny thing, that makes perfect sense to me
    – defense retrieves puck, looks for someone to pass to
    – puck comes to winger on boards, he turns and looks for someone else to pass to
    – centre grabs the loose puck fromt he puck battle beside our net, turns and looks for someone to pass to
    if there’s no one open, they’ll be checked soon

  • dlb eh

    we teach novice kids, first thing you do when you get the puck, take two hard strides to open ice then get your head up
    Carlyle wants the guys to be patient and not force passes, not throw pucks away, not panic.  but the guys seem to think this means standing still and looking for a play.

  • Knights2Leafs

    Sorry – I was tied up on a phone call.  I like Ho-Sang as a prospect but he’s a similar player to Max Domi or a Phil Kessel. Smaller and fast but is he the type of player we need going forward?  See *Tyler Biggs*
    : )

  • ingy56

    CanuckUKinToronto  I’m not watching Saturday. Got 8th row tickets to see Yes in Oshawa.

  • Great Dane

    CanuckUKinToronto That list is still there. I think that Weber is the guy that they are targeting. Leafs have a very good relationship with the Preds, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Weber would be moved to us.

    But that will cost a lot in assets. But Nashville could move Weber for financial reasons.   14 million plus signing bonus is a lot money for Preds.