The Fan 590, in its efforts to incite reactions out of Torontonians rather than educate, asked this question on its sports radio station today:
— SN 590 The FAN (@FAN590) January 27, 2013
Our answer is unequivocally “no”. Dion Phaneuf took some heat in our comment threads for his play against the New York Rangers. One commenter referred to him as a “better version of [Brett] Lebda”.
Most defencemen are better versions of Brett Lebda, of course, but that’s not really the question asked. Phaneuf is paid $6.5-million over the next two seasons and is hardly a buy-out candidate. While he may not be worth every penny on his deal, he’s the best defenceman on Toronto and he doesn’t play a position the Leafs can afford to give up good players.
Consider the following about Phaneuf’s play so far this season:
-Dion Phaneuf leads the NHL in ice-time after five games. According to Behindthenet.ca, he has played 81.6% of his 89.92 minutes at even strength opposite Mike Koskta, a 27-year old career AHLer who has played five NHL games, most of them paired with Dion Phaneuf. That’s a little over 73 minutes of play next to a minor-leaguer.
-Despite this, Phaneuf’s puck-possession stats are not to dissimilar to last season. The Leafs are slightly losing on the shot clock with Phaneuf on the ice this season, but that’s partly because he’s faced the toughest Quality of Competition among all Maple Leafs defenders and only Carl Gunnarsson has started a lower percentage of shifts in his defensive zone.
-Phaneuf has been taken off of Gunnarsson’s pairing. The two were an effective shutdown unit last year, treading water in tough, tough minutes and allowing Jake Gardiner to display his skills offensively. This season, Gardiner and John-Michael Liles are getting tonnes of offensive zone starts against fairly weak competition, thanks to the load shouldered by Phaneuf.
-People may point to Phaneuf being a minus-8 this season. Phaneuf has gotten some awful puck luck this season: his teammates are shooting just 4.26% when he’s on the ice (the NHL median should be about 8%) and Leafs goaltenders are stopping just 82.7% of pucks when he’s on the ice. Add those two numbers together, and Phaneuf’s PDO is 869, one of the lowest in the NHL among regular defenders. (Click here for a more thorough explanation about PDO. Both percentages are far too low to last very long)
I don’t know what fans expect out of Dion Phaneuf. When he came into the NHL, he scored 20 goals (in a season where powerplay opportunities were elevated coming out of the 2004-05 lockout) and registered several highlight-reel hits in Calgary. What they didn’t show you was how Phaneuf was often out of position during his time with the Flames, and only when he stopped attempting the big collision did he mature as a defenceman and become a rock for the Leafs. He’s a player Toronto has been able to send out in every situation for the last two-and-some seasons. missing just 16 games.
He’s not a buy-out candidate. The Leafs have trouble on defence, but that’s a result of having too few defencemen like Dion Phaneuf, not too many. He’d be a top-pairing guy on most NHL teams and would surely be scooped up on the free agent market at a price similar to what he’s making now.
For Toronto to solve their defence problems, they’ll need to find somebody who can partner up with him or Carl Gunnarsson routinely, so that one pairing isn’t forced to hold onto the teams’ defensive burden.