Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

It’s Not Dion Phaneuf’s Fault You Had High Expectations

It’s the Eastern Conference Finals, and despite the fact that they were eliminated two rounds ago, people still can’t stop talking about the Leafs. Right now, it’s the plethora of former Leafs in the conference finals. On the Ducks, it’s notorious bench boss Randy Carlyle, his favourite goalie Jonathan Bernier, and a minor league defenseman who has managed to make the Ducks otherwise stacked defense in Korbinian Holzer. On the Predators, it’s the Leafs lone 20-goal scorer from 2015-16, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau. On the Penguins, it’s everyone’s favourite, Phillip Joseph Kessel Jr.

However, Ottawa is the most interesting case. You have the lovable Clarke MacArthur, who was treated poorly by the aforementioned Carlyle, and Viktor Stalberg, who I constantly forget played for the Leafs.

And, you have Dion Phaneuf, probably the most polarizing Leaf during the post-lockout era. I don’t think you’ll ever find a player who was more hated by his fanbase for no logical reason than Dion. Yes, I said it. There is no logical reason to hate Dion Phaneuf the way he was hated by Leafs fans.

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A lot of the hate geared towards Dion was mainly regarded towards the fact that he didn’t live up to expectations. He was supposed to be a top defenseman, and he was supposed to be a great leader, especially since he was the captain. However, if these are the reasons that you hate Dion, then I have some news to tell you: you don’t hate Phaneuf, you hate the management that he served under and was the unfortunate soul that had to be the face of it, especially once Burke left.

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First off, let’s discuss Phaneuf as a player. With the Flames, Phaneuf was a premier offensive defenseman. He put up totals of 49, 50, 60, and 47 in his four full seasons with Calgary, and was even considered for a Calder and a Norris, although he didn’t win either. Part of the reason for this success was the fact that Calgary had a very strong defense core during his time with the Flames, including Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich, Adrian Aucoin, Mark Giordano, Adam Pardy, Jay Bouwmeester, James Vandermeer, Ian White, Jordan Leopold, and Steve Staios. None of these names jump out at you, aside from Giordano and Bouwmeester, but it was a combination that seemed to work, as all of the defenders had above a 50% 5v5 score adjusted CF% between 2007-2010 on the Flames, with the exception of Bouwmeester and Staios. This depth allowed the Flames to shelter Dion a bit, and allow him to focus on his offensive side of the game, and thus he put up a lot of points.

So, the Leafs traded for him, clearly not recognizing this key fact. The Leafs saw Dion as a top defenseman who would play all the tough minutes for them, while still putting up Norris-like point totals. Obviously, that didn’t work out. Phaneuf couldn’t handle the tough minutes that he was given and struggled because of it. He was nothing more than a top four defenseman who put up elite point totals in Calgary, who saw his game fall off once he went to the Leafs.

Phaneuf’s 5v5 Score-Adjusted stats since 2007-08 via Corsica

Using all the data of Phaneuf from Corsica, you notice a sharp drop off in all of his numbers once he leaves Calgary and joins the Leafs. A lot of this had to with his increased role, and his inability to handle the tough minutes against other team’s top competition, and an even sharper drop off when Carlyle took over and implemented his systems that worked terribly with the Leafs. In fact, the only good year defensively he had with the Leafs was his final season, where he finally had a coach that new how to use him. When Babcock stepped in, he sheltered him on the second pair, and played him with Jake Gardiner, who is the Leafs best defenseman from a defensive standpoint, and gave him lots of power play time. Basically, he played him similarly to the way he was used in Calgary.

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Phaneuf’s 5v5 offensive stats via Corsica

The same applies to his offensive numbers. They were quite high during his time with the Flames and then dropped once he joined the Leafs, with two exceptions, that being the lockout-shortened, PDO-driven season, and his last season with the Leafs, when Babcock utilized him properly. So, not only did the tough minutes take a toll on him defensively, but since he was spending more time in his own zone, he wasn’t putting up as many points either.

So, if Dion Phaneuf did not meet your expectations as a player, then despite what you may think, that’s not exactly Dion Phaneuf’s fault. He played as well as Dion Phaneuf was capable of playing, the problem was his coaches. His coaches thought he was an elite shutdown defenseman when the reality was that he was a second pair defenseman who excelled offensively when you sheltered him. He did it with Calgary, and he did it with Toronto under Babcock.

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Now, let’s talk about Dion Phaneuf as a leader. Everyone refers to Phaneuf as one of the worst captains in Leafs history, and while that’s an argument I can get behind, I think it has more to do with the fact that the Leafs have had a history of great captains, instead of Phaneuf being a bad captain. He was no George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Dougie Gilmour, or Mats Sundin, but he certainly wasn’t a bad captain. He did everything that he was supposed to as a leader. He almost always did media interviews after the game (and the one time he didn’t, everyone freaked out), he always took the blame and owned up to his mistakes, and he never caused any trouble within the team (that we know of). Also, it’s not like he was campaigning to be captain or always gloated about how great of a captain he was. It was a role he was handed to when he arrived in Toronto by management, and he held that role respectively.

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So, you’re probably asking yourself: why do I think Phaneuf is a bad captain? Well, it’s probably because he happened to be the captain during the worst period in Leafs history. He was the face of a playoff drought. Hockey has an issue of mixing up leadership and winning. Crosby? Great leader, two Cups. Toews? Great leader, three Cups. Ovechkin? Terrible leader, no cups. Phaneuf? Terrible leader, one playoff appearance. So, you only think Dion Phaneuf was a bad captain because he captained bad Leafs teams. He wasn’t a bad leader at all, it’s just that his team sucked, and because he was such a great leader, he included himself in the group.

Now, there is one logical reason why you should be glad that Phaneuf was traded, and that was his atrocious contract. Paying a second pair offensive defenseman $7 million for 7 years was a terrible idea, and he shouldn’t have gotten that contract. However, there are two ways to look at this contract: you can blame Phaneuf for not living up to it, or you can blame management for being stupid enough to pay him that much. If you’re blaming Phaneuf, let me ask you: if you were offered a significant raise in your salary at work, despite the fact that you knew that you were a terrible worker who did nothing, would you take that raise? If you answered yes, and still blame Phaneuf for not living up to his contract, congrats, you’re a hypocrite. The only person to blame for that contract is Dave Nonis, who was stupid enough to offer him that contract. Am I glad that that contract is gone? Yes. Would I still take Phaneuf on my team at a much more reasonable salary and term? Yes.

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So, 1300 words later: what does this have to do with the Ottawa Senators being in the Conference Finals? Well, I’ve noticed many Leafs fans say they don’t want Dion Phaneuf to win a Cup with the Senators, many of them being people who not even a year ago were all over the Phil Kessel/James Reimer Stanley Cup Final.

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Now, I totally understand not cheering for the Sens if you’re a Leafs fan, considering that they’re a longtime rival and that a good chunk of their fanbase has an annoying inferiority complex to the Leafs, knowing that their team will never be as popular as the Leafs. However, Phaneuf should not be one of the reasons. If anything, he should be the reason that you want the Sens to win, aside from Erik Karlsson, Clarke MacArthur, and Craig Anderson.

Yes, he may still leave a sour taste in your mouth after his time in Toronto, even after just spent all this time explaining to you how it’s not his fault. But, guess what? He’s not on the Leafs anymore. His contract is no longer taking up $7 million of the Leafs cap space, not a single cent (lol Ottawa). He’s no longer an overrated defenseman. He’s no longer a top pair defenseman. He’s no longer a captain. So, you have no more reason to hate him, and if you do, that’s your own fault.

YOU were the one who decided to listen to the words that Leafs management was feeding you. YOU were the one who listened to Brian Burke tell you how he would be an elite defenseman. YOU were the one who decided to make Dion Phaneuf “the guy” on the blueline, despite the fact that all evidence beforehand stated otherwise. YOU were the one who decided to make him the face of a terrible team after he was given the captaincy, not by his own choice, but by the choice of management and his peers. YOU were the one who blamed him every time his team let him down. YOU were the one that set high expectations for him, and blamed him for not meeting him. Dion Phaneuf played as well as Dion Phaneuf could. You just did a poor job of assessing what Dion Phaneuf was, and he, like the great guy that he was, took the blame for your errors.

So, stop treating him like crap, especially since he isn’t on the team you cheer for anymore, and feel glad for Dion and his success, even if it’s with the Senators. You should be glad that Dion has found new life with a new team. He’s no different from Kessel last year (except for the massive talent gap). He overcame everything that he had to deal with in Toronto, whether it’s the media, the fans, the high expectations, or the fact that management didn’t realize that he wasn’t THE guy, but a guy that can compliment THE guy. Just like Phil.

And if he wins with the Sens, this doesn’t mean that the Leafs lost that trade. The Leafs made that trade for one sole purpose, and that was to dump his contract. If the Sens win this year, they still have to reach into their already empty wallets and pay him $7 million for the next four years, while the $6.65 million that the Leafs are paying Milan Michalek and Colin Greening will be off their books this season, and Jared Cowen’s buyout will cost the Leafs a mere $750,000 in cap space next season. The Sens might win this year, but with the extra cap space, the Leafs could probably win the Cup for the other four years of Dion’s contract with the Sens.

So, to summarize this all up: don’t cheer against the Sens because they have Dion Phaneuf. He did absolutely nothing wrong in Toronto except fail to meet the high expectations that the Burke-Nonis management sold and you bought. He did the best that he could, but was put in a role that was doomed to fail, more on the coaching and management than himself. So, you should be glad to see him succeed in his new role, and if you still have your problems with him, then I think it’s time that you moved past it. The Leafs have, so why haven’t you?

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    • Gary Empey

      Scott Maxwell is right though. Phaneuf like all the stars we bring into Toronto whether it is the Raptors, Jays or the Leafs take an unfair beating by the Toronto media. That is turn influences a lot of the local fans to follow suit. It is just a question of time before we see who is next on the firing squads list.

  • MartinPolak

    I never disliked Phaneuf and knew exactly the type of player he is. That said, I however was very disappointed with some in the analytics community who despite knowing about ageing curves and datamined QOC to show the contract was not so bad. I think those folks did more damage to the Phaneuf brand and to advancing analytics acceptance.

    • Kanuunankuula

      Pretty sure most of the analytic community hated that contract the day it was signed. The only defense for it was that he was played like a first pair D.

      • Gary Empey

        Tell me one time the “analytics community” has been right about anything. One may as well flip a coin and you would come up with the same results half the time.

  • jimithy

    Removing the ‘C’ from his sweater was long overdue. Now he plays to his liking. The overripe decision makers behind the rash Leaf choices could learn from this and rip the ‘A’ from Reilly’s sweater and let him get on with his career. Poor guy.

  • Gary Empey

    One important thing I think you have missed is Phaneuf arrived here just as the league decided to clamp down on hooking and holding. For a lot of defencemen particularly those that were not great at skating backwards, this was how they learned game and was a major part of their defensive game. As far as captain goes I am not really sure what a captain is supposed to do. The coach is the one who tells the players how he wants them to play the game. As for the trade all I have heard since Dion left is we need D-men. Nobody who came back our way is playing in the NHL. We did get a 2017 2nd round pick but I think we gave that away to acquire Boyle. While I am at it I might as well mention this. What frigging “sheltered minutes” exist today? If you are playing Pittsburgh where are the “sheltered minutes”? It is against Crosby’s line, Malkin’s line, or Kessel’s line. If you are playing against the Leafs, is it Kadri’s line, JVR and Marner’s line, or Matthews and Nylander’s line. The game has dramatically changed to a top nine format. It is time the analytic folks wake up.

  • N.Rad

    I agree with you that he is very well suited as a second pairing defenceman, however he would have done a significantly better job as the Leafs top pairing d-man if he was given a descent defensive partner. I don’t care who you are, there is no way you can go against Ovi, Corsby, Toews, Getzlaf, etc. playing alongside Holzer (6th d-man for Anaheim), Kostka (currently in the AHL), Fraser (not playing anymore), or even Gunnarsson (3rd pairing d-man on the Blues).

  • FlareKnight

    In the end I don’t care. Phaneuf is off and doing his thing in a role he’s suited for. I’m not going to cheer for him to win though because he’s on Ottawa. But it doesn’t matter if he wins or not. His cap hit is gone, the page has been turned, and life continues.

    In the end this is a pretty silly rant. Phaneuf doesn’t care about you defending his honor to people who don’t care that he isn’t here anymore.

  • Poppee Pete

    Excellent points on Dion. Would be a great Leaf if the Leafs could have gotten a Karlsson to go with him, and Dion’s contract would be doable with Toronto (how can Ottawa afford him & Toronto can’t?).

  • Espo

    “He wasn’t a bad leader at all, it’s just that his team sucked, and because he was such a great leader, he included himself in the group.”
    Couple things… a: you just described Wendel in the 80’s… and people LOVE Wendel.
    b: The issue was never that they lost (were bad) but how they lost. 18 wheeler = questions about leadership.
    c: most importantly, I for one was continuously perplexed by the fact that a guy that could land the perfection that is Elisha Cuthbert could seem to completely lack any sort of personality or charisma… like ever….