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Editor’s Note: This post originally ran May 10th. Trade rumours have breathed new relevancy into it.

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The major story that’s dominated popular thought in Toronto through the shortened season is the coaching of Randy Carlyle. Carlyle’s tight defensive systems, so to speak, are the cause of the success of James Reimer’s season, and Carlyle’s hard-ass style of not letting anybody off the hook for poor play turned the Leafs into a workhorse, junkyard dog type of team that made the playoffs for the first time in blah blah blah you know the story.

But the other thing that’s been talked about on nearly every Maple Leafs broadcast is the matchup game. I’ve noticed this watching Leafs games this year, that Carlyle is a coach for which the matchups are noticeable visually. In most situations, I’ll have to check after the game to see who is playing on who. Nearly every time a top offensive player is on the ice against the Leafs, Dion Phaneuf is on the ice, and for the second half of the year he was with Carl Gunnarsson in those situations.

The best indication of this is Phaneuf’s time against John Tavares and Matt Moulson. Hockey Analysis lists Phaneuf as playing 41:24 and 41:04 against those players respectively this season. Why is that important? Because the Leafs only played three games against the New York Islanders this season. That’s about 14 minutes at 5-on-5 per contest against one of the league’s top lines.

The only defencemen to see more time against Tavares were Brooks Orpik and Ryan McDonaugh, the shutdown guys in systems also run by matchup-stickler coaches. The Islanders played the Orpik’s Penguins five times and McDonaugh’s Rangers four times. Next on the list? Paul Martin, Bryce Salvador, and Dan Girardi. Not until you get to Zdeno Chara do you get an out-of-division opponent matching up against Tavares, and he played about six fewer minutes vs. the Islanders’ top centreman than Phaneuf.

That’s two minutes a game, or three shifts, which adds up to a considerable amount.

Dion Phaneuf has had an alright series against the Boston Bruins. He was pretty poor in Game 4, although excellent in Game 3, shutting down the Bruins’ top trio of Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand. In the fourth game, Carlyle switched the matchups, sending Phaneuf out primarily against David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton—to that point, the most dangerous threat on the Bruins. Krejci got a hat-trick in Game 4, and as any hockey fan with a TV, particularly in Canada will note, it was scored with Phaneuf on the ice making a bad pinch.

Phaneuf admitted his culpability on the play. Justin, who has played at a much higher level of hockey than any other blogger, broke down the OT winner as being the result of a collective error by the Leafs’ team and no one individual play. That doesn’t fly in Toronto, though.

Dion’s a captain and has had a tough year. The Leafs are not a good puck-possession club. But it wasn’t until midway through the season that Randy Carlyle finally let Dion play on the right side (even as a left shot, he’s more comfortable on his shooting side) with last year’s partner Carl Gunnarsson. Those two faced the toughest competition on the Leafs and Phaneuf came out very close to “even” in Corsi. He had an exceptional season that didn’t carry over to this year. A rough half year on his wrong side, paired with AHLers in Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer and playing big minutes against the John Tavares’ of the world for the coach who is such a stickler for matchups.

The usage chart also bears this out:

defencemen usage chart

By now we all know how usage charts work, right? Red circles indicate Relative Corsi, the y-axis represents the average Relative Corsi of opponents and the further left you are on the x-axis, the more you started at the defensive end of the ice.

There’s a clutter of defencemen and few noticeable ones in that chart. Going to the website may make it easier to read all the names, but Phaneuf sticks out as a guy who has started a tonne of shifts in the defensive zone, against the highest quality of competition in the league, by quite a considerable margin.

That’s no coincidence. Carlyle’s system was designed to have players take the fall for the greater good. As a captain and a veteran in the league (is Dion Phaneuf already a veteran captain? I feel old) it’s on Phaneuf to accept his role and he has.

But he’s taken abuse in the Toronto papers. Well, rather, a national paper, courtesy of David Shoalts:

Those who run the club learned two important things in Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to Boston: Phaneuf has no future with the team as a No. 1 defenceman, and 22-year-old Jake Gardiner does.

A Leaf comeback against the battle-hardened, superior Bruins is as likely as Phaneuf developing hockey sense. His decision on Wednesday to pinch and go for the big hit cost his team the game and probably the series. Nice of Phaneuf to take the blame, but his body of work is the deeper problem.

It could be seen throughout his entire game against the Bruins.

I have a lot of respect for Shoalts. He’s been around the business for a long time and his reporting on the Phoenix Coyotes arena saga has been excellent. But he’s just wrong here. Jake Gardiner was extraordinary against the Bruins in Game 4, for sure. He moved up onto Cody Franson’s side when Franson’s usual partner Mark Fraser took a slapshot to his head and left the ice. Franson and Gardiner together were dominant, and Gardiner is going to tell his grandchildren some day that he went head-to-head against Jaromir Jagr in a playoff game and absolutely shut him down.

My problem with Shoalts’ article is that he seems to think that a team can only have one good defenceman. Phaneuf’s a tough player to analyze because his quality of competition is at previously unseen levels—he’s like the Henrik and Daniel Sedin of defencemen, but in reverse, getting the worst minutes that could be offered up.

It wasn’t just Shoalts. Tim Wharnsby of CBC called for Phaneuf’s head:

You also have to wonder about Dion Phaneuf’s future in Toronto. After his overtime gaffe, in which his ill-advised pinch paved the way for David Krejci’s game-winner to put the Bruins ahead three games to one in the series. Phaneuf has found himself in hostile ground with Maple Leafs fans.

His latest mistake simply magnified the fact that, in his eighth year, this hard-hitting, smooth-skating defenceman continues to make the same mistakes he did as a raw rookie with the Calgary Flames in 2005.

The 28-year-old Phaneuf has one more season left on his $6.5-million-per-year contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis will have to make a decision on Phaneuf in the next several weeks because a lot of the blockbusters these days are made at the NHL draft.

It’s been a rocky year, but Phaneuf is right in the middle of his physical prime. I doubt he’s worth the $6.5-million he’s paid, but the Maple Leafs are by no means a team that’s in salary cap hell. Brian Burke’s conservative approach to building the team over the last three years had them flirting with the salary floor this past summer, in fact.

Phaneuf isn’t the best defenceman in his Conference, but he is by far the best defenceman on his team. The Leafs’ problems stem from the fact that they don’t have enough blueliners they can trust, not too many. When they traded for Jake Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul in 2011, they paid a significant price in François Beauchemin. Beauchemin has turned up on a few Norris ballots while Lupul spent most of the season on the injury shelf and Gardiner either in the minors or a healthy scratch. The fates, and Carlyle’s reluctance to play the talented Gardiner, are making that deal look better for Anaheim every day even though it really, really, really shouldn’t be close.

Mistakes are one thing. Play a defenceman for enough minutes, and even the best will make some. Shoalts admit that Zdeno Chara made two, but since they came at the beginning of the game, they’re more excusable. I don’t like that logic. A bad pinch by Phaneuf is a bad pinch, but if it happened in the first period, it’s still a bad pinch. If James Reimer bails Phaneuf out on the play (as well as Jay McClement and Ryan O’Byrne) it’s still a bad pinch. Part of the reason #fancystats have gained a lot of prominence is that they collectively take into account every play, every matchup, every sequence that could have resulted in a goal… even if it didn’t.

But it wasn’t in the first period and Reimer didn’t bail out the Leafs. That doesn’t make Phaneuf buy-out material, and if you accept that Carlyle has coached the Leafs to a playoff berth, you must also accept that Carlyle hasn’t made a mistake by playing his best defenceman in the toughest spots imaginable this season.

To Randy Carlyle’s credit, he’s gotten a few things right, like matching up Phaneuf with the best the opposition has to offer. Other times, it takes a puck in a player’s face for Carlyle to realize that Franson and Gardiner are a natural second pairing. Baby steps.

Comments (38)

  1. Phaneuf has size. He has skill. He has can skate well. I don’t think anyone can question how much he cares or his drive. It sounds like he is a decent leader but that is more behind closed door stuff so hard to comment for most of us.

    What he lacks is situational awareness and hockey IQ and that was clear in Junior. I saw him play a lot when the Red Deer Rebels and Calgary Hitmen were two of the top teams in the WHL during his time there. He had a great junior career but it was characterized by a lot of the same mistakes you see him make now. Bad defensive positioning at times and questionable decision making.

    I always thought, well, he is young and will learn. He has toned it down “somewhat” but at 28 years old and paid as well as he is, they should be closer to non existent if he is truly a #1 dman in the NHL. I believe when Gunnar is out there with him he helps cover a lot of the mistakes. When Gunnar went down Phaneuf was exposed and it showed. He isn’ t the type that makes other players better. He needs them to make him better.

    Is he the Leafs best dman?? Yes he is, but that says more about the quality and depth of the Leafs def corp than how good Phaneuf is.

    • “I believe when Gunnar is out there with him he helps cover a lot of the mistakes. When Gunnar went down Phaneuf was exposed and it showed.”

      There are very few defensemen in the NHL that wouldn’t look bad playing against that quality of competition with Mike Kostka or Korbinian Holzer as their partner. Every defensemen makes these “mistakes” it’s just that Phaneuf was doing it with non-NHL talent trying to shutdown the best players in the league.

      • I don’t disagree Travis with the quality of player other than Gunnarson Carlyle stuck him with. But a dman paid as much as Dion should be able to elevate others play above their own normal level. He doesn’t.

    • The reason I don’t think the Leafs are a contender or have properly rebuilt themselves is because Phaneuf is viewed and heavily counted on as the top D man. He would be a great compliment to a top guy if put on a second pairing, but he should not be playing the minutes he does against top lines, and he wouldn’t be doing that on a team contending for a cup.
      The fact the Leafs rely on him to do so indicates that IMO, they are extremely ill equipped on the back end and are not as far along as some would want to believe. Not sure over 82 games the Leafs even make the playoffs, I guess next year we will see.

    • PEP, I agree with you %100 ….but Cody Franson is a better defenceman, and I really like Mark Fraser and feel with 1 more season he too will be much better than Dion defensively

    • I agree with Mark Berry. Phaneuf is nothing more than a liability, more so because they play him so much. Gardiner is by far the better playmaker, puck mover and is quickly gaining confidence in his physical game. There is no way that Phaneuf is the best dman. He was one of the main causes of our lose this year against Boston…totally inept!

  2. I’m constantly defending Phaneuf when talking to friends or co-workers about his abilities. He is skilled. I think of the games against the Penguins when you see him shut down Crosby on the boards.

  3. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

  4. I don’t understand how a Phaneuf love-in article can be written without mentioning his salary once.

    Why is it so hard to understand that people like myself who constantly criticize Dion only do so because he’s paid like a top d-man… so we expect him to perform like one. Guys like Chara, legitimate top d-men, almost never make mistakes while Dion makes them frequently. It is basically irrelevant that Dion is the best guy on Toronto’s back-end. The point is that if they wish to progress as a team, to an elite level, players like Dion need to be recognized for what they are – “good” but “far from great.” He’s treated as a great player at the moment, and it is simply wrong.

    • Unless you see every Bruin game how can you make a comment on Chara, who arguably had a sloppy Chara year. Playing alongside mr softy, Gunnerson would make anyone look bad at times.

      • So I’m forbidden from commenting on Chara unless I’ve seen every Boston game? Bizarre logic to say the least.

        I’ve seen plenty of Bruins hockey over the past several years. And he’s a Norris winner. As well as a Stanley Cup winner. I think his resume speaks for itself.
        There’s no way Dion should be paid anywhere near as much.
        He’s good.
        Chara’s elite.

    • Dion has the talent but disappears in some big games and still makes bonehead plays. You somewhat expect it from a guy like Subban but remember Dion has been in the league much longer

  5. First of all, yes he shouldn’t have pinched in. Next, why did his defense partner back in to a point that it became an easy shot on Reimer. Furthermore Reimer has to come out and challenge. I respect Dion for answer the most stupid questions by reporters. How does he feel? Dah! Will this hurt the Leafs chances? Dah! Seriously, he has made more plays that helped this team than hurt us.

    • That is the problem with dico Dion, he makes a lot of good plays and a lot of bad ones. That is not what you want from a #1 D man. I’m a Flames fan who wasn’t really sad to see him go because of this wild inconsistency… even though the Leafs might as well have just given us an STD in return, or maybe a junk punch.

      • Think you would expect that type of play from a Jake Gardiner who is still adapting to the NHL. Bottom line if Dion continues to make mistakes he will be thought of as a good not a great blueliner and never reach the status of a Chara ,Suter or Kronwell

  6. The Leafs have 99 problems and Dion Phaneuf aint one of them.

    Ugh, can’t believe I wrote that but it’s true.

  7. What is up with that Shoalts article? He admits there are no better defensemen available, either through free agency or trade. He also admits that the Leafs current defense corps is terrible. Why would the Leafs get rid of their best defenseman and replace him with nothing? How does the team get better that way? Leafs need more Phaneufs, not less.

    • His argument seems to be basically:

      1. Leafs need a perfect defensemen.
      2. Phaneuf is not perfect.
      3. Get rid of Phaneuf.

      There is no better example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  8. yeah…so it’s become obvious the blog world the….let’s call it the MSM (mainstream media)…is more interested in selling ads, generating chatter and appealing to the troglodites of our world

    logic and common sense be damned, we need to sell ads, and fast!!

    they will perish as their readership turns senile and all will hail hte mighty non-team-affiliated blog

  9. I would love to sit down with @camcharron and watch every one of Phaneuf’s shifts this year and analyze them. You would then see he is NOT a good defenseman. One of us is not watching the same games, or watching with rose-coloured glasses, when he is playing. I’m not seeing what you are seeing.

    • You can’t measure how good Phaneuf is by how many mistakes he makes. Let me use Braden Holtby as an example–if he were to never go out to play the puck, he’d never make that gaffe that led to the goal the other night. But because he is playing the puck and taking that risk, he’s probably prevented a goal or two from being aggressive, too.

      And considering how much the Leafs have to rely on Phaneuf to gain possession and move the puck up the ice for 20+ minutes a night (because his D partner tends to be nowhere near as good)…he’s going to make mistakes. The difference is that some guys have players who can cover up for their mistakes. Phaneuf doesn’t.

      Does that mean Phaneuf should be less aggressive? Does that mean he should let the other team hem the Leafs in their own zone even more?

      • To put it another way…you can measure goalies by how many mistakes they make. It’s called “GAA.” I’m saying you should measure them by how many mistakes they make relative to how often they have to make a play–”save percentage.”

  10. Cam, you can take the horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink it.

  11. I like that stats guys have increased the emphasis they put on TOI to judge D. Think it’s a pretty good place to start looking. Unlike, say, raw corsi it’s something that’s not necessarily gonna trick you depending on if the guy takes crap shots or the coach traps. Only way TOI is going to screw you up looking at D is if some oddball coach is really, really playing favorites with a guy who isn’t meriting it or if the team an awesome D is on happens to be really, really deep and able to rest him.

    Anyways, good article. And yeah. Phaneuf’s way better than his reputation in 2013.

  12. Phaneuf is the Leafs’ top D-man??? Huh??? Are you all high on BC weed???? Jake Gardiner makies Phaneuf look like a peewee D-kid.

    • Jake Gardiner plays an entirely different game than phaneuf. Gardiner is wildly entertaining and a spectacular to watch, and I think he may end up being the more talented player in a few years. However, theres that old saying that you know a d man is having a good game when you dont notice him out there. While having a guy like gardiner is fantastic and huge plus, you need shutdown guys to grind out the tough minutes against the damgerous guys. Gardiner has a much harder time freewheeling and doing his thing without the grinder. I dont want to get in on a Dion love in, he pisses me off at times, but i fail to see the better options out there right now, unless moving him brings in a good package of draft picks, and the leafs are actually willing to develop them.

  13. minor nitpick: Bergeron is the Bruins’ 2nd or rather 1b line, the Krejci line is their first.

  14. So, uh, I get paid twice for this post?

  15. But insider Nick Kypreos says Phaneuf is on the trade block.

  16. How do you know that the reason the leafs are a poor puck-possession club because of Phaneuf partially? What that usage shows me is he gets tough minutes but how do I know if he is playing those tough minutes well or what they show that he is way over matched. We can go into arguments that he was paired with AHLers but then how do we know how much of the puck possession reflects Kostka and how much reflects Phaneuf. And even with Gunnar, that pair wasn’t amazing.

    I’m looking at how to use these stats more effectively as I’m not sure they tell me too much.

  17. This post is recycled from weeks ago; what gives? Change the date, call it a post?

    Weak sauce, TheScore.

  18. This is one of the most intelligent articles about Phaneuf I have read. He really is underrated, which seems bizare to say, but its true. Give him a partner worthy of top line minutes and have a good secondary pair and he would be unbelievable.

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