By virtually any metric you can consult, Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf played some of the toughest minutes in the National Hockey League last season. According to Behind the Net’s Corsi Rel QoC measure, his 2.144 rank placed him third in the NHL behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek of Phoenix. According to the opposition goals for per 20 minutes over at David Johnson’s Hockey Analysis website, Dion Phaneuf’s opposition’s 0.813 goals was 2nd to Zdeno Chara’s 0.816 goals.
Yesterday, Muneeb Alam of Red Line Station came out with a list of the average time on ice of opposing forwards. Phaneuf led the league in that category, slightly ahead of Chara, Dan Girardi, and Michalek. His opposition played an average of 16.58 minutes per game.
It’s tough to really find a statistic that doesn’t suggest Phaneuf ate up his fair share of tough minutes, or more than his fair share. While Ron Wilson frequently ran his top pairing into the ground every night against tough competition, that was made even more apparent under Randy Carlyle last season. Worse for Phaneuf, it took forever for him to finally move back to the right side of the ice and alongside Carl Gunnarsson, and he made stops with Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer along the way. Kostka is good enough to be an NHL defenceman, but was outmatched in the big minutes early in the season.
So that brings us back to Phaneuf. By looking at possession metrics, the Maple Leafs were six ways from awful with him on the ice last season. His -18.16 Corsi per 60 minutes rate was third worst in the NHL among defencemen with at least 30 games played—ahead of Buffalo’s Mike Weber and a one-legged Ryan Whitney. The Leafs took just 41.9% of all shot attempts with Phaneuf on the ice. In that metric he was ahead of just Whitney (40.8%) Weber (40.7%) and Holzer (39.9%) among defencemen with 300 minutes.
None of that is intended to have us jump on the “Phaneuf is awful, trade him” bandwagon, but I think it’s worth trying to quantify what portion of Phaneuf’s play was influenced by the tough minutes. I won’t even bother to check his plus-minus over the last four seasons, but I can’t assume it’s very good. That’s a combination of playing against the league’s best forwards, usually with a poor supporting cast and playing in front of a lot of bad goaltending.
Check out this chart, using data gathered from Hockey Analysis:
|Opp Shots/20||Opp Shots vs. Phaneuf||Change||Opp Goals/20||Opp Goals vs. Phaneuf||Change|
(Shots include missed shots)
Expressed as another way… opponents in the last four seasons have gotten 9.27% more shots when they’re playing against Phaneuf as opposed to when they’re not… and 4.68% more goals. You can see the difference goaltending made in the 2013 season, when Phaneuf’s opponents took 19.7% more shots against the Leafs’ top pairing but generated just 9.2% more goals.
Here’s the other thing about quality of competition… Phaneuf’s opponents’ 13.967 shots against in 2013 was the most in the league, but that 13.502 in 2011 was 126th out of defencemen that played 500 minutes. That’s a pretty slim margin you’re looking at—0.4 unblocked shots per 20 minutes is worth approximately one goal over 1000 minutes of play.
Eric T. has written about quality of competition before and how since everybody plays enough minutes, it all sort of evens out over the long run. That’s not so when you’re looking at team quality. In 2013 among defencemen with 300 minutes, the range in Team Corsi% was between 60.2% and 41.9%. The range in Opponent Corsi % was between 51.1% and 48.8%. Clearly, who you’re playing with is more important than who you’re playing against since the differences are much less marginal.
It’s hard to judge Phaneuf’s effect. The fact that he’s used in very tough situations and plays a lot of minutes plays into his favour, but given how Carlyle’s player use is so drastically spread out across four lines and three defensive pairings moreso than any other team, it’s tough to gauge how players do in different situations.
I think David best approached the problem back in May. Phaneuf’s value is mostly offensive, since score effects help Phaneuf more than average when the Leafs are trailing as opposed to when the Leafs are ahead. The problem is that the window for player movement is closed and the chances of the Leafs acquiring a legitimate shutdown guy by October 1st is pretty slim. Phaneuf will do in the meantime, but he’s probably an offensive defenceman miscast as one of the league’s most depended-on shutdown players out of necessity. It’s not as if the Leafs have a whole lot of options here.
So what’s the conclusion? Well, there’s not really one here, except that by playing a load of minutes last season, Phaneuf took the heat off of other Leafs defencemen and made them look a little bit better. I suppose Mark Fraser owes him a dinner or two with that $1.2-million he made this summer. The Leafs need to bank on Carl Gunnarsson being healthy so that Phaneuf doesn’t have to play with an AHLer on the top pair again. Something was eating at him last year and as you can see above… it significantly affected Phaneuf, moreso than did the quality of Phaneuf’s minutes.
Another thing… given a) the Leafs cap troubles and b) the fact that the Leafs have Phaneuf under contract for one more year… would it really be the wrong decision to trade him and have a shot to keep Cody Franson for a few more years?