Dion Phaneuf, Norris Finalist



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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.”)

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The reality is that Phaneuf’s Norris nomination was ill-deserved, for a host of reasons:

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:

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  • 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:

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  • 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. 

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  • There is no doubt that Phaneuf has been the Leafs’ best defenceman this season. And who knows what his first half would have been like had he not sliced his leg open, like a Christmas ham, on November 3rd, missing over a month.

    And, late in the season, he occasionally saw thirty minutes of ice in games. He finally showed Leafs’ fans why he’s the captain and what kind of player he can be.

    But he’s not Norris-worthy just quite yet.

  • It’s amazed me how well he’s played defensively. He’s led the Leafs’ blueline the last 30 games and done a very nice job of it.

    Not what I expected when they got him. But at only 25, maybe we should have given him some leeway to improve.

  • Phaneuf wasn’t the Leafs best D man this year, Schenn was. Phaneuf plays best when he’s really a fourth forward, not a true stay behind the forwards and defend more than shoot guy.

    Phaneuf is more like Housley, a 4th forward who plays from the back.

    • You should try reading the post. It reveals amazing things like the fact that Willis isn’t saying he was the best over the course of the year. He’s saying that he’s had a great 2011.

      And the fourth forward thing? Again, the post explains that he’s being used to defend the opposition’s best players AND starting in his own zone more than in the offensive zone.