So, last night happened. We watched the Leafs play one of their most exciting and intense games in nearly a decade, and promptly fell into a state of wondering after David Krejci scored his third of the night to win the game for the Boston Bruins. Some wondered if the Leafs still have a chance in this series. Some wondered about the players wives and girlfriends. Some wondered if this was really what they were waiting for for nine years. Lastly, a lot of people wondered about how awesome it would be if the Leafs no longer had Dion Phaneuf. Wait, what?
This of course stems from Phaneuf’s poor decision making on the goal. A failed open ice hit saw him way behind the play going the other way, and took Phil Kessel with him. There is no doubt that there were many other ways to approach Nathan Horton than trying to throw the body around. My concern, however, is becoming his "Bryan McCabe Moment", a defining moment where the fanbase completely turns on him. Here’s a few things I have issue with.
It’s Not Just On Him
Go watch the goal again (yeah yeah, it hurts, I get it). You’ll notice a few things:
- Going for the hit isn’t necessarily bad. If he catches Horton a little earlier, he’s praised for it, but a quick pass threw that off.
- Yes, he did take out Kessel. But we got to see just how quick Phil is, as he almost got back to Lucic. You could even goes as far as saying he was catching up quick enough to make Krejci assume he would be in the way and not go with the pass.
- While Phaneuf was too aggressive, Ryan O’Byrne makes an arguably dumber play by being over-conservative and, well, not actually doing anything. Kessel already negates Lucic. Really, the only thing O’Byrne does on the play is act as a screen to James Reimer.
- With Kessel back, Phaneuf, chasing, O’Byrne lollygagging, and Reimer half screened by O’Byrne, Krejci now understands that shooting is his option, he has lots of time to do it, and that if Reimer has something exposed, he won’t see and correct in time. Aaaaaand… goal.
Dion Phaneuf is absolutely at fault for making an incorrect play that resulted in the rush that lead to the goal. Dion Phaneuf is also not the sole reason that David Krejci has a hat trick and the Leafs are a game away from elimination.
That Wasn’t "Typical Dion"
A lot of those criticizing act as if this is a "business as usual" play for him. I really don’t want to argue the statistical merit of Dion Phaneuf, because the people who dislike him repeatedly refuse to acknowledge it. But, just as a refresher…
- Dion Phaneuf faces the highest quality of competition in the NHL by a considerable margin
- Dion Phaneuf played over half his minutes this year with Korbinian Holzer and Mike Kostka. I like both of those two; neither should ever be near a first pair.
- From the same link, just 30% of Phaneuf’s minutes are with Carl Gunnarsson, who still isn’t a first pairing defenceman, but is the closest thing to resembling one on the team.
- For all the criticism Phaneuf gets for "taking dumb penalties", he takes the fewest of Toronto’s physical defenders.
Now that you know Phaneuf eats up a lot of minutes, against better players than anybody else in the NHL, alongside partners who have no business playing with him. However, what does this mean for his non-advanced stats?
- Sixth in goals, seventeenth in assists, tenth in points (all stats amongst NHL defencemen).
- "He can’t aim his shot!" except when he finishes 24th in shooting accuracy, 10th amongst those who played at least half the season.
- His 31.6 shifts per game are third in the league (combine this with quality of competition and it looks more like "We’ll just play Phaneuf when lines 1 and 2 come out")
- I hate Real Time Statistcs, the type of person who complains about Phaneuf loves them, so it’s worth pointing out that he finished 6th in hits, and 25th in blocked shots. He admittedly finished first in giveaways; but that’s an unflattering stat, the players taking the puck away are better than most; and the stat implies he had possession to begin with.
"But he’s been bad in this round!" You may say.
- These are the Bruins Phaneuf has spent the most time against.
- Most frequent line against: Marchand – Bergeron – Seguin.
- Marchand has two assists. Bergeron has a goal. Seguin, 0 points.
- That’s a combined 0.25 points per game, in case you’re curious.
- Zdeno Chara, his most faced D, has 5 assists, but three are secondary, one of the two primaries came on the power play, and 80% of them were from last night.
- Speaking of last night, that’s where one of Marchand’s assists and Bergeron’s goal came from. After three games, Phaneuf’s top 5 most played against players had a combined two assists.
In short, he was stellar under a pile of extremely strong minutes during the regular season, and with the exception of last nights game,
has been very strong this series.
And they want a trade?
Trending on Twitter last night was "#TradePhaneuf". It was also something that came out of the mouths of many angry fans. But, at the end of the day, what exactly does this accomplish?
As it stands, the Leafs current need on the point is a second all purpose minute eater, not to ship out the one they already have. If they were, they’d have to get two back in return, which means either a GM has lost their mind or you’re getting back lesser defencemen (quantity over quality). The other option is a 1 for 1 deal, but top end defencemen appear to be looking for a change of scenery.
Of course, there’s the "bag of pucks" solution too, which according to this section of the fanbase, would be addition by subtraction. You know, until the Leafs start getting outshot 18-76 every night. But they’ll have cap space, so it’s all good. Just replace him with Mark Fraser, because plus/minus means everything!
The Letter On The Chest
Another topic that came about at the same time as the "he sucks, trade him" rhetoric is that Phaneuf is unfit to be a captain, and that Joffrey Lupul should take his place. This is also an incredibly flawed thought.
Consider that most people who want Lupul to be captain have the following reasonings:
- Joffrey Lupul is the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs
- Joffrey Lupul looks pretty
- Joffrey Lupul is well spoken and also looks pretty
Lupul appears to have bought into the Leafs system, thrives under his linemates, and is the type of guy you want on this team for years to come. I’m happy with him wearing an A.
But even if he was the Leafs’ best player (he’s not), that doesn’t mean he’s a de facto captain. A quick skim (that will lead to a whole different debate), has less than half the league with a captain that is the best player on his team. Is Lupul good at dealing with the media? Yes, but so are a lot of players.
Phaneuf was the face of a total shift of philosophy for the Maple Leafs as they moved into a new era of young players who wouldn’t get pushed around. He continues to be the face of the locker room, is involved in the community, and handles the media well. On the ice, he’s very vocal with the referees, which is really the practical purpose of being a captain. As a "face of the team", he does well.
If you need any further proof that Phaneuf is the right man, look at how he managed last night. No criticism of his teammates on the play, even though many deserved it. He told told the media that it was his fault, and said the same to the team. He knows that if he sucks up the blame and lets the team focus on game 5, it’s a much better result. That’s what you want from your captain.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season ends, they’ll be where they are partially because of Dion Phaneuf. Stupid plays happen every so often, and some performances should never be repeated. This can be said for the OT winner last night, and Phaneuf’s game 4 as a whole.
But contrary to the current anger, this full season isn’t the result of being held back by him; he’s a major reason the team has pushed forward and are where they are right now. Rather than make him a scapegoat, rather than ask for his departure, and rather than say he’s not the right man to lead the team, one must escape the moment and look at what he’s brought as a whole.
Playoff hockey brings out the emotion in even the best of us, so it’s hard to blame people for making him last night’s scapegoat. But if you’re looking to hold onto that feeling for an extended period of time, you may want to choose a better target.