Dion Phaneuf2

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On Friday I wrote a post titled “5 NHL players who aren’t what you think they are,” the goal of which was to kill some of the assumptions the general public has about certain players. The guy who was the last cut on the list was Dion Phaneuf, so I thought I’d revisit his situation today.

If you ask the average hockey fan what they think of him, you’re getting a polarized opinion – he’s awesome or he’s awful. Almost no one out thinks he’s average. The contracts, the hype behind his name, and the Leafs captaincy drive that.

So, in a nutshell – is he good, bad, or otherwise?

In the interest of trying to settle 1000 hockey arguments: Dion Phaneuf is an excellent defenseman. He’s probably worth his seven million by seven year deal. He’s a top pair guy. It’s just the expectation of him that are out of whack.

Phaneuf-haters give him a lot of flack because he occasionally over-pursues, which leads to the odd situation where he’s noticeably out of position. The thing is, it’s pointed to so much because he shaped that reputation for himself in his early years when he used to go body-hunting in the neutral zone. He doesn’t do it nearly as much as he used to.

A defenseman who can play with an edge and still help out offensively is super uncommon. Phaneuf’s goal and assist in yesterday game has him close to 10 goals and 30 points on the season, which good enough to get you in the top 30, which, by the way, clearly defines you as a top-pairing d-man. Anyone who passively dismisses a player like that with “Phaneuf sucks” is probably someone to avoid chatting with about hockey.

His advanced stats aren’t all that great, but they’re not going to be when you consider he’s logging huge minutes against the best players in the league. Also, here’s what Tyler Dellow has written about how playing in the Leafs system has affected Dion.

In Phaneuf’s case, I’m inclined to think that the Leafs’ tactics make his numbers look worse than he actually is. We can debate whether the Leafs’ tactics are sensible—I don’t think that you can build a Cup contender that plays the way they’re playing unless you have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin so it seems sort of pointless to me—but it seems more likely that their system results in Phaneuf generating terrible results than it does that Phaneuf is fine when trailing, but terrible when leading or tied.

If you’re playing a system that destroys a player’s numbers, it’s silly to blame the player for that.

There seems to be this expectation that Dion Phaneuf is supposed to be the league’s best d-man or he’s not a valuable asset, which is garbage. Fans need to accept that it costs money to pay top guys, there’s only so many of them in the league, so when you’ve got the chance to lock one up you simply have to get off your wallet.

Phaneuf is a big hitter with a big shot who plays mean and plays great players. That’s not an easy hole to fill. Just because he’s not Zdeno Chara doesn’t mean he’s not one of the league’s better defensemen.