December 28 2013 12:15PM
Dion Phaneuf is 28 and in his physical peak. He's an excellent defenceman with tremendous talent and the best the Maple Leafs have had in years. He faces the toughest competition in the NHL according to Behind the Net's metric Corsi Rel QoC metric, and the toughest competition of any NHL defenceman (fifth overall) according to Extra Skater's Time on Ice QoC metric.
I've written in the past that Phaneuf takes a lot of undue heat for his play, but it got to a point this season where I'm not sure I can continue to work under the assertion that Dion Phaneuf is a worthy No. 1 defenceman. A $7-million contract would definitely have him paid as a No. 1, and accounting for salary cap inflation, it wouldn't be until 2018 or 2019 that the salary cap is high enough that $7-million isn't an above average cap hit for a No. 1.
The reason I've grown salty over an extension like this for Phaneuf is because for the calendar year of 2013, Phaneuf has had dreadful underlying numbers. The Leafs have had dreadful underlying numbers as a whole, but Phaneuf is counted on so much. The recent year has corrupted my view on Phaneuf's abilities as an able defenceman that can shut down the opposition.
The general rule when you look at defencemen that face a lot of quality of competition is that when you compare it to the shot differential numbers, anything that's close to even is great, anything that's above even is Norris Trophy-worthy, and anything below even is forgivable. Here is how Phaneuf's Relative Corsi (explanation here) stacks up next to players that also face a high quality of competition rate according to our rankings found at ExtraSkater and BehindTheNet:
The takeaway from this list is that Ryan McDonagh would probably be in Norris Trophy contention if he weren't held back by Dan Girardi, that Zdeno Chara is amazing, that Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda are actually a pretty good pairing, and that Phaneuf lies in the murky middle of players you can forgive for their puck-possession transgressions.
The problem I see is that Hjalmarsson and Oduya are not the top paid players on the Chicago Blackhawks. They're the heavy lifters. I think it's reasonable to appreciate the work that Oduya and Phaneuf do for Chicago and Toronto while also noting that what they do is not worth a whole lot of money tied against the salary cap for such a long time. Oduya and Hjalmarsson make a little under $7-million against the cap… combined, until Hjalmarsson's extension (up to $4.1-million) kicks in next year.
When I look at Phaneuf, I just see a risk in tying up cap space to a player that isn't "great" when it comes to driving play… lately. In 2011-2012, Phaneuf was 10th in BTN's QoC measurement, and was a +3.3 Relative Corsi. Between 2010-2012, him and Carl Gunnarsson had a 49.3% Corsi rate together, which is very close to even that we can attach "great" to those seasons considering the level of competition they faced.
However there's some evidence that Phaneuf does relatively better to his teammates when the Leafs are losing. That's an offensive thing, and probably where much of his good Corsi numbers come from. David Johnson covered this in some pretty good detail over at Hockey Analysis back in May. Here's a simple chart showing Phaneuf's Corsi numbers when his team is Down by 1, Tied, or Up by 1, compared to his teammates when they're on the ice without Phaneuf:
Phaneuf is about equal to his teammates in situations where you need to defend, and much better in situations where you need to attack. He's a very tough defenceman to gauge, because his "best" years are going to fall in years where his team spends a lot of time trailing in the game, and his "worst" years are going to fall in years where the Leafs are winning more.
It's also looking ahead. I think the Leafs need to find a pairing like Chicago did, getting a couple of moderately-priced players to fill up roster spots that can essentially do the same thing as one top guy. Phaneuf at $7-million means the Leafs will have about $21-million to sign 10 players. Committing to Phaneuf long-term means you're committing to this Leafs roster that gives up shots, doesn't take many, and wins games by hanging on to the skin of its teeth.
I like Phaneuf, but I'm very wary about locking him up to a big contract.
Figures via CapGeek