Big minutes: Breaking down Dion Phaneuf

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.

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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.

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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
2013 13.967 16.720 19.7% 0.813 0.888 9.2%
2011-2012 13.584 14.025 3.3% 0.808 0.862 6.7%
2010-2011 13.880 15.220 9.7% 0.783 0.783 0.0%
2009-2010 13.502 14.487 7.3% 0.794 0.796 0.3%
Total 13.641 14.906 9.27% 0.791 0.828 4.68%

(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.

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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?

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  • Back in Black

    I think you should check out Burtch’s great work on the SDI metric that measures Phaneuf’s and other dman’s shutdown defensive capability. What it shows, is that Phaneuf is actually pretty bad.

    Further, how you “use” Phaneuf’s advanced stats show how they can be manipulated to support an ageneda. If Phaneuf had Blowzak’s flow, we would see 1001 reasons why Phaneuf is such a terrible hockey player and is the main source of the leafs getting out shot which the SDI for Phaneuf appears to support.

    And so this is my biggest problem with the users of advanced stats in that they use them to support their stance (blast Bozak) and ignore or excuse them when they do not support their agenda (sugar coat that Phaneuf is really not that good defensively, in fact he is outmatch in a defensive capacity, similar to how badly Blowzak is outmatched offensively with Kessel).

    • Badger M

      Keep in mind Bozak and Phaneuf are different situations. Bozak–why use him when there is someone better (Grabovski, numerous other options)? Phaneuf–why is there no one better? (That is, would any Leaf D do better in a shutdown role than Phaneuf, even if that’s not his ideal role?)

      • Badger M

        Prove it. And provide stats that show Bozak and Phaneuf are in vastly different situations which allows you to blast Bozak and excuse Phaneuf?

        I support both players and understand they have limitations in their game. This is more confirmation bias to support the position that Bozak sucks so people can feel justified to blast away on Bozak.

        • Back in Black

          It seems to me that the analysis says that Phaneuf is a good offensive player who is being relied on too much defensively. OTOH, Bozak is a poor player who is being relied on too much period.

          Is that being unfair to either player?

    • Back in Black

      There aren’t any good defensive stats. It’s blindspot in fancystats that, at the moment, don’t measure the effectiveness of defenseman.

      Burtch’s SDI metric is subjective and not at all peer reviewed. When did he come out with this?

  • Back in Black

    I like stats. They definitely have a legitimate use.
    On the other hand, anyone who watched a good amount of leafs games who had played the game before and understands it from a perspective other than 1+1=2 knows that without phanuef last season, we would have been in the basement.
    The guy is a stud, does it all night in night out, plays against the very best in the league, manhandles most of them most of the time. Count how many times a game dion makes a smart play that saves a goal or scoring chance instead of the exact number of seconds he was on the ice etc.
    Blows my mind people don’t consider him to be an elite top 10 all around D man.

  • Back in Black

    I can’t believe that the advanced stats community is now going after Phaneuf. Ok – I understand Orr or Mclaren, but the incessant attacks on Bozak, Nonis, Carlyle and now Phaneuf have gotten out of hand and have turned me totally off from advanced stats.

    I’m going to pull the ole – I don’t care what your advanced stats say – but you obviously don’t “watch” hockey if you think Phaneuf is not a top NHL #1D. Sorry this blog and advanced stats are totally going to the crapper.

    • Back in Black

      This is just silly. In one deft move, this poster conflates “advanced” stats with the people who make arguments about hockey and then use those stats as evidence, and then makes the classic move of painting stats as somehow separate from “watching the games.”

      If people use a particular kind of evidence in a way you don’t like, that shouldn’t “turn you off” of that kind of evidence. It should prompt you to scrutinise how they used and analysed that evidence and whether an alternate explanation might not be superior.

      And if you think “watching the games” is different from stats, you have it backwards. Stats are what you get when you systematise “watching the games” with a transparent methodology (instead of cognitive biases) and make it repeatable and verifiable. Collecting stats is like watching the games on steroids. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive and in fact have some degree of overlap.

      So no, advanced stats aren’t going to the crapper, they’re just being used to support arguments you don’t agree with. Learn to be conversant with this sort of evidence and engage the people you disagree with on their level, rather than merely discounting all evidence they muster simply because you disagree with their research design. Say WHY you disagree with it and propose something better.

      • Back in Black

        You didn’t use one advanced stat in your entire statement but simply a bunch of words to call the poster silly.

        I think fans know Phaneuf played with AHLers (quality of team mates show it) and that Phaneuf played tough competition (quality of competition shows that). And his Corsi was also poor as a result. Those are the facts, but the disagreement is in the conclusion.

        I unlike you disagree with the notion that Phaneuf is somehow this terrible NHL defender. And this “appeal to statistical authority” to justify that your view that Phaneuf is garbage is ineffective. Kessel has a poor Corsi but no one would (at least I hope say) that Kessel is garbage. Numbers including advanced stats can lead to misleading results when used without the proper context.

        • Back in Black

          Had you read my post more carefully you might have noticed I advanced precisely zero claims regarding Phaneuf’s performance. I was simply responding to an underlying attitude in the post I referenced. You, however, have responded to the post you wish I made, rather than the one I did make. But you are right; I did not use one single advanced stat, because I was not advancing any sort of statistical argument or making any statement that required statistical evidence to support it. Nor did I make any sort of “appeal to statistical authority,” despite your insistence that I did. Might I finally add, I called the content of the post silly, not the poster. It’s almost like your response to me is a lesson in how not to construct a fair and logical argument.

  • Back in Black

    What does Phaneuf’s linemates have to do with this assumption? If he’s with bad offensive players that don’t drive the possession, than that impacts his numbers, correct?

  • Back in Black

    “Stats are what you get when you systematise “watching the games” with a transparent methodology (instead of cognitive biases) and make it repeatable and verifiable.”

    What a highly idealised image of statistics and statisticians you have. The truth is that there is plenty of cognitive bias in the collection and modeling of statistics.

  • Back in Black

    I find it bizarre how there is a focus on critiquing other commentor’s writing style, logic and the merits of advanced stats rather then discussing the point of this thread – head on.

    Namely, that Phaneuf’s is ineffective a #1D shutdown defender as some could “logically” conclude from advanced stats. And whereas, because of “context” [which is a fancy and more complete way to say “watching hockey”] other feel that advanced stats do not do Phaneuf justice.

    But if you notice, I’m doing it too – adeptly avoiding broaching that topic as well.

    Stated more simply, what is the “correct” interpretation here – that Phaneuf is a capable 1D [and shudder to think the blogger maybe incorrect] or that advanced stats are telling the complete story about Phaneuf ineffectiveness?

    • Back in Black

      I think you’ll find that the answers to your question will fall roughly along party lines. I’ll bet it has a closer correlation than Fenwick Close to Wins.