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.
“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.
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
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).