Let’s start this off with a bold proclamation:
Dion Phaneuf’s 2013 campaign was his best season in the NHL to date.
I really believe that. Phaneuf has rounded into the complete, 1A defenseman that Brian Burke and Dave Nonis envisioned when they swindled the Calgary Flames into one of the most lopsided trades in recent NHL history.
Phaneuf came to Toronto as a highly-touted offensive defenseman and, arguably, the most feared open-ice hitter in the league. The knock on Phaneuf, especially in his Calgary days, was his propensity for chasing big hits, sometimes leaving him out of position, and his overall inconsistent defensive play. This season, under coach Randy Carlyle, we bore witness to the two-way proficiency of a matured Dion Phaneuf; chasing big hits and missed assignments were all but gone from his game, pointless fights were few and far between, and his statline looked awfully familiar — in and around 50pts over a full season, good for 10th in the NHL for defensemen. Peeling back the onion layers reveals a workload that very, very few defensemen are capable of handling in this league. Dion handled it with aplomb and mostly on his own.
The last few seasons we’ve seen a disturbing trend emerge within this fanbase when dealing with a total team collapse of last season’s magnitude, or of last week’s Game 7 – when all else fails, it seems many blame Dion Phaneuf. “Overrated,” or the always priceless “bad Captain” complaint. Consider this: Out of the 30 teams in the league, there are four other Captains that play defence: Bryce Salvador (Devils), Zdeno Chara (Bruins), Mark Streit (Islanders), and Shea Weber (Nashville). Their ages: 37, 36, 35 and 27, respectively (for the most part, old). The reason: It is an incredibly hard position to lead from. To “put a team on your back” as a 2-way defenseman is no easy task. He’s not going to pull off an Orr’esque end-to-end rush, or get into a fight anymore (his team wants him on the ice 25 mins a game, not in the box after fighting a worthless player). Captaincy is something Phaneuf is growing into and he’s markedly better at it than when he arrived. He was more than accountable for his bad pinch in Game 4, promised to make up for it, and delivered in Game 6.
If you watch Michael Ryder arrive awkwardly into a dressing room he was already familiar with (he played in Montreal from 2005-2008), and then imagine walking into a totally unfamiliar dressing room, unplugging someone’s ipod, plugging yours in and cranking up the volume, you get more of an idea of what a commanding presence Phaneuf is on this team. Having been at Phaneuf’s 1st game a Leaf (Brendan, Dan and Dan will remember), I can tell you what he was an enormous difference — and a loud one — he made on a decidedly quiet team. It was a welcomed sight as Dion began the process of whipping his team into shape. He’s been the leader of this team since the 1st day he arrived. Like Brian Burke and Ron Wilson remarked: “He’s like a stick of dynamite went off in our room.”
Granted, leadership is never down to one individual. While players like Lupul and McClement help augment the leadership group, Maple Leafs management needs to keep doing that if the Leafs are to avoid collapses like Game 7. If you are expecting Phaneuf to stand up between periods and give an Al Pacino speech, you don’t understand leadership in sports. Phaneuf is by many accounts the hardest worker in practice — always — he encourages the young players as much as a he can (e.g.: he brought “bust’ Nazem Kadri out this summer to PEI to train with him), he’s popular in the dressing room (by many accounts, and from what I’ve heard from a Marlie), and he executes what he does on ice at an elite level. That’s about all you can ask for from your Captain.
As the story goes, Darryl Sutter, knowing what type of player he was drafting, started crying the day he selected Phaneuf. He’s a rare breed. No Phaneuf, no playoffs this season… Not even close. No Phaneuf in the 1st round? Likely a Bruins sweep. Phaneuf’s going to be around for many, many years… be thankful for that and and embrace it, Leafs fans. We need more players of his ilk, not less.
While he was shutting down some of the best players in the world from the onset, Phaneuf’s regular season got off to a slow start; he recored just one point in 11 games but continuously got better offensively as the season wore on. Phaneuf started the season saddled with first-year NHL players who lack the ability to play the game at his level, to put it mildly. Kostka and Holzer bring simple games and were playing at an elevated level due to their mid-season form, having already played over half a season in the AHL. Gunnarsson meanwhile was playing injured. The Leafs need to get deeper at defence and find a player of a similar calibre to play alongside Dion. It’s as plain as day to see. It drastically affected his season and his offensive output continues to be hindered because of it. Gunnarsson is fine, but he wouldn’t be a #2 defenseman on many teams in the league. He’s solidly #2 on the Leafs.
From the blowout win over Montreal onwards, Phaneuf posted a remarkable 27 points in 37 games en route to the Leafs first playoff berth in 9 years.
While Gunnarsson is a steady defenseman for the Leafs, it was apparent in the series against Boston that Dion was going to have to be a one-man show in order to shut down the 1st line of Marchand, Bergeron and Seguin. This later shifted so he was playing against two of the best power forwards in the game when he lined up against what was Boston’s new first line of Horton, Krejeci and Lucic. Dion regularly battled Horton and Lucic in the corners and in open ice, and came out with the puck more often than not. In rewatching the series with a close eye on Dion and his one on ones, Lucic regularly ran roughshod over Gunnarsson and many other Leaf defensemen, but was handled regularly by Dion.
His play in the series, like the rest of the Leafs, was lackluster to start, but gradually improved as the series wore on. In Game 1 and Game 2, he was not a difference maker and was a step behind the play, which was concerning. As Dion goes, the Leafs go. He adjusted his game, like the rest of the team and coaching staff, and looked more like the minute-munching anchor for the team. He has flaws in his game, like every player does, but I have a feeling many of his perceived flaws have as much to do with his deployment as they do talent. Dion’s cardiovascular limit looks to be 24-25 minutes as night, depending on how heavy the schedule is. He hits a wall and it becomes visible in his body language and decision-making. His body can hold up, but facepalm moments are bound to happen when the brain is deprived of oxygen. I was also not a fan of the PP#1 Defence deployment, with two non-puck-moving defenseman on the point and in charge of breaking out and/or trying to gain the zone. Having Liles and Gardiner (and Kaberle before them) split on PP#1 and PP#2 and in charge of breakout and gaining the offensive blueline is a more effective use of everyone’s talents and allows the shooting defenseman to set up more quickly and efficiently. The power play would have been more effective against Boston if it were setup like that. That’s not Dion’s fault. Another pet-peeve is playing defencemen on their correct sides on the point, as it hinders Dion’s ability to setup for a ‘one-timer’ and doesn’t help him hold the line any better than if he was on his wrong side. Another point for another day.
In summary, Phaneuf was fantastic this year; the best he’s been since he’s arrived in Toronto, and if we’re talking defensive proficiency combined with offensive output, Dion was a top 5 defenseman in 2012-13. Perhaps with a better partner, Dion could produce at the offensive level that seems expected of a Norris Trophy winner. Phaneuf’s remarkably durable play, especially for such a hard-hitting player, hasn’t allowed us to see what the team looks like when he’s gone. In case it ever happens (God forbid), I’ll give you a sneak preview: It’s bleak.
For further reading, Michael
Stevens Stephens’ excellent piece from April 16th – Phaneuf the Contender: An Analysis of Norris Trophy Nominees
RATE THIS PLAYER: Out of 10, rate Dion Phaneuf’s season relative to his role, opportunity and the expectations for the player entering the season. Be sure to back it up.