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Dion Phaneuf Poised To Be Traded From Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf

May 12, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) during the pre game warm up against the Boston Bruins in game six of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre. John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Gord Stellick, a well-know television and radio sport personality in Canada, was talking recently on the Sportsnet 360 television program ‘Tim and Sid” about how the Leafs will need to trade Dion Phaneuf by the trade deadline next year because of the expiring contract he’s on and the likely contract he’s due to receive. Being an unrestricted free agent and the track record that he has, he will probably soar past $6 million per season.

One figures money is running out for the Leafs.

Just consider the contracts Toronto has taken on in Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson, the head-scratchers of the contracts of Colton Orr and Korbinian Holzer, the need to still sign Nazem Kadri, the need to still sign or trade Cody Franson and add that to the contracts of Phil KesselDave Bolland and Jake Gardiner next year—money will be tight.

Now, I pick out Mr. Stellick because he’s the one who is freshest in my memory. But there was a former Assistant General Manager for the Maple Leafs, Bill Watters, who trashed Phaneuf recently, Globe and Mail writer David Shoalts said it’s “time to get rid of … Dion Phaneuf.” just for giggles, I participated in a survey on the Sportsnet.ca website (Canada’s biggest sports provider) and behold my eyes, over 78 percent of respondents wanted the Leafs to trade Phaneuf.

So people “in the game” want the Leafs to get rid of him, people who cover the game want to get rid of him, and it appears the public want him gone as well.

Why?

I’ll summarize a Twitter tirade I went on recently with regards to Phaneuf:

  • A list of defensemen with 100-plus goals and 230-plus assists since Dion Phaneuf came into the league in 2005-2006. Clue: it’s a two-player list that includes Phaneuf and one of the best defensemen of the last 20 years.
  • Dion Phaneuf has a higher career points/game average (0.57) than Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang (0.54) who, by the way, will have a $7.25 million cap hit for eight years after the 2013-2014 season.
  • Phaneuf came into the league the same year as Shea Weber – who has a cap hit of $7.85 million for 14 years—and has 49 more points as Weber in his career.
  • Phaneuf has 10 more career games than Ryan Suter. Phaneuf has 70 more career points than Suter. Suter will have a $7.538 million cap hit per year for the next 13 years.
  • Both Duncan Keith and Phaneuf came into the league in 2005-2006; Phaneuf has 47 more career goals and 31 more career points than Keith. By the way, Keith has 10 years at an annual cap hit of $5.5 million left.
  • Phaneuf trails only Nicklas Lidstrom in total 9-plus goal and 30-plus point seasons since Phaneuf came into the league at 7-6 (Phaneuf also tied with Dan Boyle and Zdeno Chara).

To summarize, Phaneuf compares favorably or even surpasses those we consider to be elite defensemen in the NHL in offense since he’s been a rookie. Despite him out-performing some of the best the NHL has to offer, he’s no longer seen as a number one defenseman.

One Twitter follower pointed out that Phaneuf had much better seasons in Calgary than he has had in Toronto. This is true; Phaneuf cracked 40 points in each of his first four seasons, including 50 and 60 once each. However, even though he was playing over 25 minutes a night after his rookie year, he was never looked to as “The Guy” on defense for Calgary; they had names like Adrian Aucoin, Mark Giordano, Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and Brad Stuart to take the pressure off of Phaneuf. Because he wasn’t “The Guy” defensively, he was avoiding the toughest competition of the opponent—in his 60-point season, he wasn’t in the top defensive pairing for Quality of Competition and was allowed to flourish offensively.

This all changed when he got traded to Toronto. He went from being a not-relied-upon-defensively defenseman in Calgary to Mr. HaveToDoEverything in Toronto. After not being in the top two in Calgary his final two years in terms of Quality of Competition, he has finished first on the Leafs in Quality of Competition faced each year in Toronto. Every. Single. Year.

The effect from Phaneuf going from a primarily offensive defenseman to a primarily defensive defenseman hasn’t been as dramatic as it might seem. In Phaneuf’s 378 career games as a Flame, he averaged 0.6 points/game, or 49.2 points in an 82 game season. In his 222 career games as a Leaf, he’s averaged 0.5 points/game, or 41 points in an 82 game season. Yes, since becoming a Leaf, he’s still a 40-point defenseman, which is what he was in Calgary. There were only 19 defensemen in 2011-2012 to manage 40 points and 25 defensemen who averaged 0.5 points/game this year (minimum 30 game played). This means Phaneuf is still producing as a number defenseman even though he’s seeing much tougher minutes.

So what about those tough minutes—how is he doing with those?

Here’s the thing, the Leafs have been one of the worst possession teams in the NHL through the last three seasons. I’m not going to ignore the fact that he’s a -16 over the last three years (well, I kind of am, that’s pretty useless) but we need to see how he got there.

Zone starts play a factor in a player’s plus/minus. The more often you start in your own zone, the tougher minutes you’re playing. While the effect isn’t as dramatic as you might think, starting in your own zone is never where you want to be. Phaneuf had been pretty controlled during his first two years as a Leaf, finishing close to 50 percent in offensive/defensive zone start splits. This shortened season was a completely different animal, however, as Phaneuf had the third-lowest offensive zone start% for any defenseman in the NHL this year (minimum 40 games played).

So while Phaneuf has been a minus all three seasons, these are his actual goals for/goals against numbers for the last three years while he was on the ice, adjusted for zone starts and expressed as per 20 minutes of even-strength ice-time:

 

Year Goals For/20 Minutes Goals Against/20 Minutes Net Goals/20 Minutes
2010-2011 0.889 0.834 0.055
2011-2012 0.796 0.961 (-0.165)
2012-2013 0.970 0.941 0.027

 

In two of his three seasons, adjusting for zone starts, he’s been a plus player. Given, 2011-2012 was a bad year, but that will happen when you have the third-worst goaltender save percentage in the league.

So we’ve found out that Phaneuf has:

  • Been elite over his career as an offensive defenseman
  • Still averaged 40-point seasons in his three full years as a Leaf, something as few as 19 defensemen accomplish in a season.
  • Been a plus-player in two of his three seasons despite playing the toughest minutes for one of the NHL’s worst teams in that span.

Even with that information some Toronto media and seemingly most of its fans want Phaneuf gone. Just let me know who’s ready to be a plus player while eating 25+ minutes of the toughest competition each night and still putting up 40-point seasons.

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