The Leafs: Led from Behind

William Wilson April 28, 2013 9
Dion Phaneuf in all his gloryPhoto by Dave Abel/The Toronto Sun

As the Leafs prepare to embark on their first playoff adventure in nine years, they’re being led by captain and defensive specialist Dion Phaneuf.

A number of recent articles have already been written about the importance of Phaneuf to the Leafs (for example, here’s an excellent article by Michael Traikos at the National Post) so I won’t repeat all the usual arguments here. Instead, I’d like to quickly focus on three key attributes that have put Phaneuf back into the James Norris Memorial Trophy conversation as the league’s best defenceman.

First, Phaneuf has helped the Leafs solidify their blueline by logging big minutes for the team. Many of these minutes are played against the opposing team’s top line, adding to Phaneuf’s workload.

He averages 25 minutes of playing time per game and currently sits among the league leaders in this department.

Phaneuf has played similar minutes under both former head coach Ron Wilson and current head coach Randy Carlyle despite differences in how these two coaches approach the game. While Phaneuf’s offensive numbers showed some improvement under Wilson, the defensive side of his game has really started to shine again under Carlyle. Phaneuf underwent a particularly disappointing campaign last season where his +/- dropped to -10. It has rebounded this season along with the Leafs’ fortunes.

Second, Phaneuf has actually improved his offensive numbers by playing a more conservative brand of hockey. He’s taking considerably fewer shots these days, which has resulted in a higher shooting percentage.

Last season, for example, he took 202 shots over 82 games for a 5.9 shooting percentage. In contrast, he’s taken 86 shots over 46 games this season, sending his shooting percentage above 10. He’s also seen his points-per-game production rise from 0.54 to 0.59 over the same span. If the current season was based on an 82-game schedule, these numbers would represent a career-high for Phaneuf in Toronto.

Finally, although he’s only 28 years of age, Phaneuf has helped mentor some of the other players on the team. The most obvious player in this respect is rookie defenceman Michael Kostka who has played alongside Phaneuf for parts of the season.

Kostka, who’s only one year younger than Phaneuf, was an unlikely candidate to make the team out of training camp. Many people projected him to serve as a career AHLer, but he’s found a place in the NHL playing beside Phaneuf. (When he’s not paired with Phaneuf, Kostka often finds himself sitting in the press box.)

I’m not a fool. This season the Norris Trophy will likely end up in the hands of Kris Letang, P.K. Subban or Ryan Suter – all of whom are more deserving candidates than Phaneuf – but I do think we’re at the point where Phaneuf is brought back into the Norris Trophy conversation.

He’s done a great job leading the Leafs ever since his arrival from Calgary and the future looks even brighter.

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