Monday, January 28, 2013
Captain Dion Phaneuf is taking the brunt of the criticism after posting a minus-7 over the two games. The Fan 590 didn't take long to incite a reaction from steaming fans, asking whether the captain was a buy-out candidate.
We're taking your #MapleLeafs calls right now on #SN590! Do you think Phaneuf is a buy-out target? Call 416-870-0590, 1-888-666-0590 or *590
— SN 590 The FAN (@FAN590) January 27, 2013
The question doesn't deserve even a moment's thought. Phaneuf is by far the Leafs' best defenceman despite what his plus/minus rating says.
The problem with judging Phaneuf's two-game performance based on his minus-7 is that plus/minus is a flawed statistic that doesn't tell us much about a player's teammates, his competition, and the situations in which his coach deploys him.
Randy Carlyle is playing Phaneuf close to 28 minutes a night, which is second in the league only to Drew Doughty. Phaneuf is playing those minutes with Mike Kostka, a career AHLer who Carlyle has somehow concluded is a top-pairing defenceman. Kostka is a great story, never giving up on his NHL dreams and finally being rewarded at age 27, but he is not a top-pairing defenceman. So Phaneuf is playing huge minutes with a suspect defence partner, and Carlyle is playing him in a shutdown role against the opposition's best players each night. Phaneuf isn't given much help either; only Carl Gunnarsson has started a larger percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Over at the Leafs Nation, Cam Charron notes that Phaneuf's play is similar to that of last year, despite increasingly difficult usage by his coach. He also argues that Phaneuf's ugly minus-8 on the year can be partially attributed to some terrible puck luck. Toronto's on-ice shooting percentage and team save percentage are well below average when Phaneuf is on the ice, something that is likely to progress closer to the mean over a larger sample. In sum, Cam says the Leafs' problem is having "too few defencemen like Dion Phaneuf, not too many."
This is undoubtedly true.
Last season Phaneuf finished with 44 points, good enough for 12th highest among defencemen. However, Phaneuf was used in radically different situations than the vast majority of the other high-scoring defencemen. According to Behind the Net, among the top 15 defencemen in scoring, only two faced tougher competition than Phaneuf—Shea Weber and Ryan Suter—and only four started a larger percentage of shifts in the defensive zone—Weber, Suter, Zdeno Chara and Kevin Bieksa. In addition, Phaneuf played more minutes than all but eight defencemen last year, and logged the fifth most ice time on the penalty kill among defencemen in the top 15 in scoring.
Unlike many point producers, Phaneuf played in every situation for the Leafs last year. And contrary to the angry reactions of Leafs fans over the weekend, he did it as well as some other No. 1 defencemen.
Note: Here is a quick explanation of some of these advanced stats. Corsi is essentially shot differential (a positive number means a team outshoots its opposition when a player is on the ice) and Corsi relative, as I've used below, is a measure of a player's Corsi rating relative to the rest of his team (so does a team that generally outshoots the competition do so more when a player is on the ice, or alternatively, does a team that is generally outshot by the competition do so less when a player is on the ice).
Player A: Quality of Comp: 1.049, Off. Zone Start%: 50%, Corsi Relative: 3.3
Player B: Quality of Comp: 1.099, Off. Zone Start%: 49.8%, Corsi Relative: 1.7
Player A is Dion Phaneuf. Player B is Brent Seabrook.
Both performed very similar in almost identical roles for their respective teams last year, but Phaneuf finished with 10 more points—likely because of the extra minute of power play time he saw a game—while Seabrook was a plus-21 compared to Phaneuf's minus-10. This discrepancy is not because of wildly different defensive abilities, however. It is likely attributable to the Blackhawks being vastly superior to the Leafs. Seabrook has the luxury of playing alongside Duncan Keith every night, in addition to elite forwards like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp, not to mention Dave Bolland, a worthy Selke Trophy candidate himself.
Brent Seabrook is a No. 1 defenceman and so is Dion Phaneuf.
The problem in Toronto is that Phaneuf is being relied upon too heavily by Carlyle and doesn't have enough support. Phaneuf played well last season with the steady, reliable Gunnarsson, but is now expected to perform as well with a vastly inferior partner in Kostka.
Furthermore, the Leafs do not have enough quality defencemen to utilize Phaneuf's minutes effectively. He played more minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill than any Leaf did last season, and is well on his way to doing so again this year. That isn't necessarily the norm for top-pairing defencemen. For example, Drew Doughty played top minutes in a shutdown role for the Kings last year, but Darryl Sutter used Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene as the primary penalty kill tandem, which allowed Doughty to spend more time on the power play and made him more effective at even strength.
Phaneuf is relied upon more heavily than Doughty, who is an unquestioned No. 1 defenceman, and produced a better Corsi relative (3.3 vs 1.5) under tougher usage.
But Phaneuf still receives a great deal of criticism, much of which stems from his inability to fit people's perception of a No. 1 defenceman. Many assume that a No. 1 defenceman is supposed to be like Chara or Weber, two players who are not only No. 1 defencemen, but are "No. 1 defecemen", the proverbial player who logs 30 minutes a night, doesn't tire, plays a shutdown role, throws thunderous checks, and scores points for good measure. It doesn't matter who you play that defenceman with—Weber is currently turning Roman Josi into a top-pairing defenceman—or who you play them against. They are going to look like a Norris Trophy winner on a nightly basis. Phaneuf is not that player. That player is exceedingly rare, and just because Phaneuf is not that player doesn't mean he isn't a quality defenceman.
However, Phaneuf does provide the Leafs with something many teams lack. In most cases, teams have top-pairing defencemen who are incredible shutdown players (e.g., Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh in New York) or great offensive stars (e.g., Brian Campbell in Florida or Erik Karlsson in Ottawa). To have a player that does both effectively isn't common. Less than 20 defenceman cracked 40 points last season, and very few did so in shutdown roles. Phaneuf was one of them.
That does not mean Phaneuf is without his flaws. Although he has developed into a much better defenceman than he was in Calgary, he can still be prone to poor positioning and sometimes gives the puck away too easily (although he gave the puck away at a rate similar to Chara last season).
For the Leafs to improve defensively, the solution isn't to rid themselves of Phaneuf, it is to help him.
Long term, the best solution would be to find a quality, shutdown defenceman in the mould of Rob Scuderi or Willie Mitchell to help ease the defensive burden shouldered by Phaneuf. Theoretically, that should have been Mike Komisarek, but that signing stunk when Brian Burke failed to realize Milan Lucic punched the talent out of the Montreal export.
There are also solutions in the short term that don't require trading assets to bring in help from outside the organization. First, the Kostka top-pairing experiment needs to end. Placing Phaneuf back with Gunnarsson, which would allow him to play on his natural side, will go a long way to shoring up some of the team's defensive shortcomings. The two were solid together last year and it was somewhat puzzling when Carlyle broke them up to start this season.
Secondly, Carlyle needs to limit Phaneuf's minutes. Playing him over 30 minutes in tough situations is only going to burn him out over a shortened season. Last year Phaneuf, along with the rest of the team, faded down the stretch. With a compact schedule and more back-to-back games, playing him in a similar manner will only deteriorate his play faster. Weber only surpassed 30 minutes twice last season and he didn't even play as many minutes as Phaneuf did on Saturday (32:38) in an overtime playoff game against Phoenix.
Finally, in addition to limiting Phaneuf's minutes, Carlyle needs to redistribute them. Phaneuf is playing over four minutes on the penalty kill, one more than the next most used defenceman on the team, and is logging over five minutes on the power play. Those special teams minutes need to be cut if Carlyle expects to get anything out of Phaneuf in a shutdown role at even strength.
Dion Phaneuf isn't perfect, but he's much better than he's unfairly portrayed. And he can be a whole lot better if Randy Carlyle accepts that he isn't Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara. Leafs fans will feel a whole lot better if they accept that too.