September 29 2014 02:30PM
It's rare to come across an article or television segment these days that doesn't refer to Dion Phaneuf as a "lightning rod", or the Leafs' most polarizing player. While differing opinions of players like Kessel or Bozak usually just pin those who believe in grit and Mimico against the folks who simply value skill, discussing Phaneuf is something different. It gets everyone fired up. Seriously, no one's safe.
The reason for much of this, of course, is that many of us really don't know what to think about the Leafs' captain. League-wide, Phaneuf is arguably the toughest player to get a read on, and given Toronto's coaching woes, and the apparent difficulty that comes with evaluating defencemen through advanced analysis, a lot of times the debates about his value end up going in circles.
Something that's always been at the front of discussions around Phaneuf is the workload he endures. And I use "endures" because he's truly suffering through it.
Phaneuf is often at the top of the Leafs' lineup in minutes played on any given night, and is known to take on a lot of difficult assignments - you know, facing the other team's best players. The question then lies in how he handles those tough minutes, and while on the surface the answer appears to be "poorly", that basically applies to the entire team in all situations.
So again we're back to it: Is this a Phaneuf problem or a Toronto Maple Leafs problem? It's likely a little of both, and we're left to deduce that Double Dion has probably been in over his head over the last couple years with not much help from an overall weak lineup.
Aside from pairing with Franson (for all of 66 minutes at evens), it doesn't look like Phaneuf does a great job of pushing the puck in the right direction with the majority of his teammates. There's a lot of light blue in that graph, and take from it what you will, but either way it's clear that Phaneuf doesn't spend much time in the offensive zone at even-strength the way he's being used. This could probably be remedied by using him in a more sheltered role with a higher percentage of starts in the offensive zone, while getting him away from the league's elite players, but that would be a heavy shift from the way Carlyle has approached things to date. Is Carlyle going to make the changes necessary to avoid seeing his captain get buried for another season?
(h/t to Dom for the graphs)
As you can see from the charts above and, you know, the on-ice product itself, the Leafs have a major problem with the way they're operating their blue-line. It isn't effective, and it's part of a bigger issue surrounding the team's overall defensive play.
There's no doubt coaching has helped to drag this team into the gutter, but some of this falls on the compilation of the lineup as well.
It could be argued that until now the team simply hasn't had the options to push Phaneuf into a more offensive role, but with Gardiner starting to take the lead as the team's most talented defenceman, and the continued emergence of Rielly, there's really no excuse for them to be inept at turning the puck up ice. There have been teams getting more out of less talent, I think.
On the production side, it's safe to assume Phaneuf will be solid again this season. He's been a 0.55 point-per-game player over the course of his 680 game career, and he'll shoot a lot of pucks and put points on the board. The extent of his overall value to the team, however, depends heavily on how he's deployed going forward. If he's simply going to go from playing with Gunnarsson in minutes that were over his head to doing the same now with Polak, the Leafs are going to suffer for it.
Phaneuf is a solid fantasy option as far as defencemen go. I'd be floored if he doesn't rake in at least 30 points, and if your league has a penalty minutes category, he should help you out there too.
For fantasy advice, head on over to DailyFaceoff.com, and make sure to check out their 2014-15 Fantasy Hockey Draft Kit. The draft kit is free and has over 100 pages of projections and analysis, so if you have a draft or two coming up this week, you'll definitely want to give it a read.