Breaking Down A Scapegoat

So, last night happened. We watched the Leafs play one of their most exciting and intense games in nearly a decade, and promptly fell into a state of wondering after David Krejci scored his third of the night to win the game for the Boston Bruins. Some wondered if the Leafs still have a chance in this series. Some wondered about the players wives and girlfriends. Some wondered if this was really what they were waiting for for nine years. Lastly, a lot of people wondered about how awesome it would be if the Leafs no longer had Dion Phaneuf. Wait, what?

This of course stems from Phaneuf’s poor decision making on the goal. A failed open ice hit saw him way behind the play going the other way, and took Phil Kessel with him. There is no doubt that there were many other ways to approach Nathan Horton than trying to throw the body around. My concern, however, is becoming his "Bryan McCabe Moment", a defining moment where the fanbase completely turns on him. Here’s a few things I have issue with.

It’s Not Just On Him

Go watch the goal again (yeah yeah, it hurts, I get it). You’ll notice a few things:

  • Going for the hit isn’t necessarily bad. If he catches Horton a little earlier, he’s praised for it, but a quick pass threw that off.
  • Yes, he did take out Kessel. But we got to see just how quick Phil is, as he almost got back to Lucic. You could even goes as far as saying he was catching up quick enough to make Krejci assume he would be in the way and not go with the pass.
  • While Phaneuf was too aggressive, Ryan O’Byrne makes an arguably dumber play by being over-conservative and, well, not actually doing anything. Kessel already negates Lucic. Really, the only thing O’Byrne does on the play is act as a screen to James Reimer.
  • With Kessel back, Phaneuf, chasing, O’Byrne lollygagging, and Reimer half screened by O’Byrne, Krejci now understands that shooting is his option, he has lots of time to do it, and that if Reimer has something exposed, he won’t see and correct in time. Aaaaaand… goal.

Dion Phaneuf is absolutely at fault for making an incorrect play that resulted in the rush that lead to the goal. Dion Phaneuf is also not the sole reason that David Krejci has a hat trick and the Leafs are a game away from elimination.

That Wasn’t "Typical Dion"

A lot of those criticizing act as if this is a "business as usual" play for him. I really don’t want to argue the statistical merit of Dion Phaneuf, because the people who dislike him repeatedly refuse to acknowledge it. But, just as a refresher…

  • Dion Phaneuf faces the highest quality of competition in the NHL by a considerable margin
  • Dion Phaneuf played over half his minutes this year with Korbinian Holzer and Mike Kostka. I like both of those two; neither should ever be near a first pair.
  • From the same link, just 30% of Phaneuf’s minutes are with Carl Gunnarsson, who still isn’t a first pairing defenceman, but is the closest thing to resembling one on the team.
  • For all the criticism Phaneuf gets for "taking dumb penalties", he takes the fewest of Toronto’s physical defenders.

Now that you know Phaneuf eats up a lot of minutes, against better players than anybody else in the NHL, alongside partners who have no business playing with him. However, what does this mean for his non-advanced stats?

  • Sixth in goals, seventeenth in assists, tenth in points (all stats amongst NHL defencemen).
  • "He can’t aim his shot!" except when he finishes 24th in shooting accuracy, 10th amongst those who played at least half the season.
  • His 31.6 shifts per game are third in the league (combine this with quality of competition and it looks more like "We’ll just play Phaneuf when lines 1 and 2 come out")
  • I hate Real Time Statistcs, the type of person who complains about Phaneuf loves them, so it’s worth pointing out that he finished 6th in hits, and 25th in blocked shots. He admittedly finished first in giveaways; but that’s an unflattering stat, the players taking the puck away are better than most; and the stat implies he had possession to begin with.

"But he’s been bad in this round!" You may say.

  • These are the Bruins Phaneuf has spent the most time against.
  • Most frequent line against: Marchand – Bergeron – Seguin.
  • Marchand has two assists. Bergeron has a goal. Seguin, 0 points.
  • That’s a combined 0.25 points per game, in case you’re curious.
  • Zdeno Chara, his most faced D, has 5 assists, but three are secondary, one of the two primaries came on the power play, and 80% of them were from last night.
  • Speaking of last night, that’s where one of Marchand’s assists and Bergeron’s goal came from. After three games, Phaneuf’s top 5 most played against players had a combined two assists.

In short, he was stellar under a pile of extremely strong minutes during the regular season, and with the exception of last nights game,
has been very strong this series.

And they want a trade?

Trending on Twitter last night was "#TradePhaneuf". It was also something that came out of the mouths of many angry fans. But, at the end of the day, what exactly does this accomplish?

As it stands, the Leafs current need on the point is a second all purpose minute eater, not to ship out the one they already have. If they were, they’d have to get two back in return, which means either a GM has lost their mind or you’re getting back lesser defencemen (quantity over quality). The other option is a 1 for 1 deal, but top end defencemen appear to be looking for a change of scenery.

Of course, there’s the "bag of pucks" solution too, which according to this section of the fanbase, would be addition by subtraction. You know, until the Leafs start getting outshot 18-76 every night. But they’ll have cap space, so it’s all good. Just replace him with Mark Fraser, because plus/minus means everything!

The Letter On The Chest

Another topic that came about at the same time as the "he sucks, trade him" rhetoric is that Phaneuf is unfit to be a captain, and that Joffrey Lupul should take his place. This is also an incredibly flawed thought.

Consider that most people who want Lupul to be captain have the following reasonings:

  • Joffrey Lupul is the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Joffrey Lupul looks pretty
  • Joffrey Lupul is well spoken and also looks pretty

Lupul appears to have bought into the Leafs system, thrives under his linemates, and is the type of guy you want on this team for years to come. I’m happy with him wearing an A.

But even if he was the Leafs’ best player (he’s not), that doesn’t mean he’s a de facto captain. A quick skim (that will lead to a whole different debate), has less than half the league with a captain that is the best player on his team. Is Lupul good at dealing with the media? Yes, but so are a lot of players.

Phaneuf was the face of a total shift of philosophy for the Maple Leafs as they moved into a new era of young players who wouldn’t get pushed around. He continues to be the face of the locker room, is involved in the community, and handles the media well. On the ice, he’s very vocal with the referees, which is really the practical purpose of being a captain. As a "face of the team", he does well.

If you need any further proof that Phaneuf is the right man, look at how he managed last night. No criticism of his teammates on the play, even though many deserved it. He told told the media that it was his fault, and said the same to the team. He knows that if he sucks up the blame and lets the team focus on game 5, it’s a much better result. That’s what you want from your captain.

In Summation

When the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season ends, they’ll be where they are partially because of Dion Phaneuf. Stupid plays happen every so often, and some performances should never be repeated. This can be said for the OT winner last night, and Phaneuf’s game 4 as a whole.

But contrary to the current anger, this full season isn’t the result of being held back by him; he’s a major reason the team has pushed forward and are where they are right now. Rather than make him a scapegoat, rather than ask for his departure, and rather than say he’s not the right man to lead the team, one must escape the moment and look at what he’s brought as a whole.

Playoff hockey brings out the emotion in even the best of us, so it’s hard to blame people for making him last night’s scapegoat. But if you’re looking to hold onto that feeling for an extended period of time, you may want to choose a better target.

  • Finally, a voice of reason. Thank you.

    I couldn’t believe how many people have been harping on him. It was a bad game for him for sure, but he has been excellent for this team and the Leafs would be far worse without him.

  • I will admit that after the game, I said after Phaneuf’s contract is up we shouldn’t consider resigning him, I even said something unreasonable, that if he wasn’t a Norris contender next year, don’t reconsider him at all. But even before I read this I realize that everything I said was in the heat of the moment, and not fair at all, and I hope that everything anyone else has said was in the heat of the moment as well. We like to think that we are great fans, and have the organization and even the players telling us that often, but really if we keep treating our players like this, who would want to play here having to potentially deal with this fan base, the pressure, the media etc.

    This is a very good break down, and I hope people cut Phaneuf some slack.

  • You are absolutely right, and the senseless criticism of Phaneuf is unwarranted. With that said, you neglect to mention some of his “other” statistics… such as leading the NHL this season in turnovers, something you can’t really toss up to “oh, he’s playing with a non-first pairing” or “look at who he’s playing against”. Other teams also play against the same competition. He’s also arguably one of the slowest Leaf players.

    I like Phaneuf as much as the next guy, but let’s not pretend that he doesn’t have *many* shortcomings as well. He needs to step up his game.

    • A quick glance at the NHL stats website shows that Dion Phaneuf does in fact lead all defenceman with 53 Giveaways.

      Looking at this list, I see:

      Dustin Byfuglien at 50
      Andrei Markov at 50
      Dan Boyle at 42
      Victor Hedman at 42
      Norris Trophy candidate P.K. Subban at 42

      The rest of the first page includes a number of other highl regarded names such as Brent Seabrook, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, and another Norris candidate in Kris Letang.

      what’s the connection? Why do all these highly-rated defenceman turn the puck over?

      Is it because they handle the puck a lot for their team, incresing the odds they might turn the puck over on occasion? (Yes)

      Is it because they play a lot of minutes, thereby increasing the odds they might make more raw turnovers than the guy playing 14 minutes a night? (Yes)

      Is it that giveaways are a stat that, like hits, relies upon the scorer in each city to tabulate and is subject to inconsistency? (Yes, again)

  • millzy09

    Excellent piece. I have no problem with anyone giving him the horns because at the end of the day, it was his fault. It’s the people that say “trade him, turnover machine, overrated, bottom two defenceman” that I can’t stand. He messed up, give him the blame, he takes the blame, move on. He’s good and the Leafs are a LOT better with him. Unfortunately, haters gonna hate, and Phaneuf bashers will never listen to logic.

  • millzy09

    Yes ok… but u gotta look at it this way too… how many turnovers has he had a bunch all season long which most of the time they score just like last night he threw it right into traffic and look what happened they scored we wouldnt of needed the over time if he could just pass the puck right

    • millzy09

      Have you been keeping track of all of his turnovers or are you just remembering the ones you want to? Or maybe you remember the ones that cause goals because there is something to remember. Hey, you could be right, but show me the numbers and I’ll take your comment seriously. Until then, you don’t have a leg to stand on. You’re just saying stuff.

  • millzy09

    Poorly written and blatantly bias piece.

    EVERY first defensive pair on any team goes up against other teams’ best players, that’s their job, Phaneuf is not special in that way.

    Phaneuf continues to make bad defensive plays that aren’t always turnovers. But, you also can’t just ignore having your best defence man lead the league with the most giveaways, especially since he didn’t even finish top 10 in the league in TOI (notice how different this is than saying third in the league with shifts). Also, if you look at the takeaway the top 5 give-away players have they are: 26, 18, 32, 34, compared to Phaneuf’s 15.

    Every Norris winner (except Lidstrom 2 years ago) in the past 13 years has had a high plus/minus, so i guess one would say it’s an important stat.

    He can’t aim his shot. His shooting percentage in his past 2 full seasons has been 5%.

    You counter your own points, making them go against you argument (ex. “But even if he was the Leafs’ best player (he’s not), that doesn’t mean he’s a de facto captain. A quick skim (that will lead to a whole different debate), has less than half the league with a captain that is the best player on his team.”). You just said if Lupul was a captain, while not being the best player on his team, it’s fine, after saying it’s not fine for the very same reason.

    Maybe if you stopped concentrating on how pretty Lupul is (your words, not mine) , you would realize Phaneuf is certainly not good enough to be a top 2 defender and isn’t just a scapegoat for last game.

    -Not a Leafs fan

  • MaxPower417

    As a Canucks fan, I’ve bashed the former Flame in Phaneuf for as long as he’s been in the league.

    The subjective mind in me says “Dion sucks”, but the objective mind says “he’s a solid player who can eat up minutes again a lot of good players”.

    Toronto absolutely needs him. Sure, he didn’t have a great game. But even Gretzky had bad games. Everyone does.

    Good luck, TML, I’m pulling for you from Van city.

  • Quasijr

    I do agree that Phaneuf is our best defence man & minutes eater, & yes it translates to turn overs because of the amount of ice time & puck handling he does. But being our best defence man doesnt mean he is in the top 10 Dmen in the league.
    I like Dion, but he is a #2 pairing Dman on any other team in the playoffs.
    His shot selection sucks always wants to try blasting away with a slap shot that is always blocked & bounces out of the offensive zone this happens all the time on our power play. He should be using a well placed wrist shot for deflections or rebound opportunities. Because he is a slow skater (he is a strong skater & can haul 2 opposing players on his back) his missed pinches usually mean 2 on 1 breakouts for the other team.
    This has not been a good series for Dion but do I think we should trade him or get rid of him hell no!!!! He does need more support pairings Fraser Kosta O’burne are not the answer. Hopefully Pearcy Finn & Rielly are.
    When Dions contract is up management is going to have to say to Dion your a good Dman not a great one & give him a contract that is in step with it probably $4M & not over pay like they did with others before.