The Dion Phaneuf wearing the blue and white in Toronto is not the same Dion Phaneuf who was a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2007-08. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
There’s always a temptation, when discussing Dion Phaneuf, to look back at his gaudy offensive totals in his first few seasons with the Calgary Flames and consider him a diminished player because he hasn’t been able to sustain those totals. That Norris Trophy nomination in 2007-08 adds to that temptation, because it suggests that he was one of the game’s best all-round defensemen at the age of 22 (actually, it does more than suggest that, given that the Trophy is awarded to the blue-liner who “demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.”)
The reality is that Phaneuf’s Norris nomination was ill-deserved, for a host of reasons:
- He played against inferior opponents while the pairing of Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich was relied upon to shut-down the big guns.
- Despite those inferior opponents, Phaneuf played with the best offensive players.
- When it came time for the coach to send someone out for a defensive zone faceoff, it was once again the Regehr/Sarich pairing that was leaned on. Or David Hale. Or Jim Vandermeer.
- Despite being used as an offensive specialist, Phaneuf’s even-strength scoring numbers were good but not spectacular, ranking outside the top-30 for defensemen.
That’s not to say Phaneuf had a bad year; far from it. His power play numbers were very good, he played a lot of minutes, he threw highlight reel hits, and as a rule he did a pretty good job of taking advantage of his relatively cushy minutes. It just wasn’t the sort of year that screamed “best defenseman in the game!” because Phaneuf was being used as an offensive specialist and still being outshone offensively by guys playing the hardest minutes – players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Andrei Markov, and even Zdeno Chara.
In fairness to the members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, Phaneuf wasn’t really considered the best defenseman in the game, as a quick glance at first place votes shows us:
- Nicklas Lidstrom: 127
- Zdeno Chara: 3
- Dion Phaneuf: 2
- Sergei Gonchar: 1
- Brian Campbell: 1
Lest this seem like relatively mindless 07-08 Dion Phaneuf bashing, there is a point to this: during 2009-10, Phaneuf’s role changed dramatically. Last year, he was in the top two of Flames’ defensemen in Quality of Competition when he was traded. This year, he leads the Leafs’ blue line in that category.
That’s not all. For the first time in his career, Dion Phaneuf is more likely to be on the ice for a defensive zone faceoff than an offensive one. He’s being asked to fill the role that a Norris candidate should fill: that of a guy being relied on in all situations, and asked to do as much in his own end as he does in the offensive zone.
More important is this: after an uneven start, Phaneuf is excelling in the role. James Mirtle has done a fantastic job of tracking the improvement in Phaneuf’s game, and a quick glance at Phaneuf’s stats line pre- and post-All Star game helps to confirm that upward shift:
- Before: 33GP – 1G – 10A – 11PTS, -8
- After: 30GP – 7G – 12A – 19PTS, +8
Phaneuf’s penalty minutes have also dropped off, from 57 in the first half down to just 29 in the second half. Despite his penchant for physical play, he has been remarkably good at drawing more penalties than he takes over the course of his career (single exception: 2007-08, his Norris finalist year), and it’s good to see that coming back after an uncharacteristically poor start.
If this offence is a sign of things to come, and not an aberration, it represents fantastic news for Leafs fans. A Dion Phaneuf who marries the offensive ability of his early career with the defensive responsibility he now bears will be something that he wasn’t in 2007-08: a player worthy of being nominated as the best in the game at his chosen position.