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


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.