Dion Phaneuf: Miracle worker?

Somebody ask Stephane da Costa how his rookie season went.

It’s been 925 days now since Brian Burke pulled the trigger on arguably his best deal: On January 31, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Matt Stajan, Ian White, Jamal Mayers and Niklas Hagman for Fredrik Sjostrom, Keith Aulie and, of course, Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf has become the Captain of the team and the clear #1 defenceman, while White was the only player going in return who has managed to make himself worth anything in this league. He played with Nick Lidstrom in Detroit.

Aulie is since gone, traded for Carter Ashton, and Fredrik Sjostrom is no longer. The only remaining piece of this deal is the 6’3″ 214-lb rugged Phaneuf, who has calmed down since joining the Leafs and has become a strong two-way force who plays against tough competition.

It wasn’t long ago that the Leafs defence was a place of peace and harmony. When the team had François Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle, there was a complete top six. It wasn’t perfect, but it was complete, and players were playing their intended roles. Since the trade of Beauchemin, Phaneuf has had to play with Aulie, who was a minor-league defenceman before and after his time with #3, and Carl Gunnarsson, a player who evolved from the #5 spot in the lineup to take his spot on the team’s top pairing.

Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie

The basics, here. This was the season that there was much movement and shuffling on the Leafs defence. Beauchemin and Kaberle would be moved mid-season, leaving Phaneuf as the only veteran on the blue line and forcing the Leafs to recall Keith Aulie, a big, hard-nosed grinder from Western Canada.

Aulie was roughed up in possession in both his first and his second call-up last season, but the goaltending of James Reimer meant that he was a minus-5 in his first 12 games to a +4 in his next 28. Since Aulie played his season primarily with Reimer in net, no Leaf had more of a benefit of strong goaltending behind him as Keith Aulie did. Leafs goalies combined for a save percentage of .938 behind him.

To be able to tell exactly how good a defenceman is, you can’t look at goals, particularly over a low sample of games. Shot counts help us locate the puck when a player was on the ice. If the majority of the shots went against the Leafs with Aulie and Phaneuf on the ice, then we have a problem with the pairing. Thanks to Stats.Hockey Analysis, we can locate where the bulk of the shots were taken when Phaneuf was on the ice with Aulie, and without:

2010-11  With Phaneuf Without Phaneuf Phaneuf Without
Keith Aulie 0.419 0.408 0.497

(Caveat: I only used the season at hand when comparing the players)

Phaneuf was nearly a 50% possession player without Keith Aulie, but together they were pulled down something fierce. This takes away from the “Miracle Worker” narrative I’ve been trying to sell around here, since Phaneuf couldn’t turn Aulie into a capable NHL defenceman.

When Aulie was taken off Phaneuf’s pairing, he struggled at the NHL level and found his way back to the minors and eventually traded to Tampa Bay as the Marlies rotated the doors to find space for younger, newer, potentially better defencemen such as Jesse Blacker.

Aulie would return to Toronto in a depth role for the Norfolk Admirals and win a Calder Cup as the Admirals swept the Marlies in the AHL finals this past spring.

Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson

This pairing, for whatever reason, works. Gunnarsson played 922 minutes in his rookie year, 1240 in his sophomore season, and was up to 1649 in all situations with Phaneuf. Throughout his career, he played third-pairing minutes against moderate competition primarily in the defensive zone, but he’d never been a plus-possession player in his career.

And, well, he still isn’t, but the seeds are ripe for the future. Without Phaneuf, Aulie was a dreadful 40.8% player, meaning nearly three of every five shots came against Toronto, but Gunnarsson is closer to even: he’s a 48.7% player.

2011-12 With Phaneuf Without Phaneuf Phaneuf Without
Carl Gunnarsson 0.492 0.487 0.505

The two didn’t gain any absolute synergy with one-another and we’re still looking for that defenceman who will make Phaneuf a better player as opposed to dragging him down, but this pairing was nearly even against very tight competition.

I mean, without Phaneuf, these guys are being hemmed in against Maxim Lapierre!

What does it mean?

Well, for Dion Phaneuf, he’s not a Miracle Worker in the sense that he hasn’t yet been able to singlehandedly bring a depth defenceman into positive territory like, say, Nick Lidstrom would be able to in Detroit, but he lacks the help with forwards. Gunnarsson has improved and the Leafs really bank on those two to play a successful game.

The problem though lies with the fact that after this pairing, there is really nobody else to handle the load. You look through the rest of the roster and you see “too hurt, too bad, too hurt, too young, too fragile…” in reference to the rest of the Leafs defence.

Outside of Phaneuf, Gunnarsson is probably good enough to play decently on a second unit, but I think the Leafs captain still needs a player who can make him better as opposed to worse so that at least one Leafs defensive pairing can control the shots at a 50% or higher rate while still playing against elite forward competition.

That’s the challenge for Burke. He’s stated though that he doesn’t see improving the top four as a priority. I write about this several times a week to reinforce my belief that the defence is the weakest aspect of Toronto’s lineup. Even Phaneuf just can’t do it all when you look at all the numbers. He’s still spending far more time in the defensive zone than he should have to.

To get better, the Leafs need a tremendous push from somebody outside of the lineup, but banking on these miracles isn’t a recipe for success.

  • I’d be curious to see how many defensemen break into the top-60 (and then again with the top-120) or so possession players at their position on a year-in and year-out basis. How many guys become top-4 worthy in a given year?

    I mean, I certainly would expect it to be a dice roll but is it more of a dice roll than expecting a goalie who had a .900 save percentage to turn into a guy who can put up a .915 over a full season? My guess would be ‘no’ but that also might be informed by the downside risk of bad goaltending and my last five years’ experience.