Babcock’s History with Older Defensemen and How Phaneuf Fits In

Last season there was plenty of talk about Dion Phaneuf
seemed destined to join the Detroit Red Wings, it seemed like a distinct
possibility at the trade deadline, and we were at the point where many of us
started debating whether taking back Stephen Weiss’ contract would make the
deal worth it. Ultimately Phaneuf never moved, hasn’t moved, and may never
move, but the Leafs have acquired Mike Babcock who may have been the primary
voice in the Wings organization looking to acquire Dion. 

Babcock’s Welcome Press Conference

“I’m a fan of
Dion,” Babcock told media on Thursday. “I think he works hard and he
tries hard. I think…you have to help your leaders. I think that’s what your
job is (as coach), is to help them do things right.”

Mike Babcock isn’t short
on experience with working with aging defensemen. During his time in Detroit
the list of blueliners over the age of thirty included: Brad Stuart, Andreas
Lilja, Mathieu Schneider, Chris Chelios, Marek Zidlicky, Ruslan Salei, Niklas
Kronwall, Brian Rafalski, and of course, Nicklas Lidstrom. Babcock has an
excellent track record of guiding aging defensemen into retirement, and getting
the last worthwhile hockey out them, is there hope that he can make six years
of Dion Phaneuf at $7M per season more tolerable than we’d expect?

Justin Bourne highlighted
some of reasoning behind why Babcock and Phaneuf are a solid match and why this
relationship may be given a chance to develop…

“Mike Babcock is a serious, no-nonsense coach
who believes in hard work. You can say a lot of things about Phaneuf, but
there’s no denying he’s all three of those things too. It’s safe to say the
respect is mutual – remember how Detroit really wanted Phaneuf, then Babcock
left, then those talks died down? Not sayin’, just sayin’.”

While these things may be
dealing in less tangible aspects of building the team, these aren’t bad values
to instill in the lineup. I don’t doubt a desire for these qualities is absent
in any other coaches, but the potential for buy-in goes up with Babcock
compared to Carlyle or Horachek, and if Phaneuf has bought in, than he and the
team may be better for it.

Of course, we’re more
interested in the tangible aspects of how to get more out of an expensive, past
his prime defenseman than anything else. The team doesn’t need a second
Stephane Robidas, and it would be nice if the Leafs could get rid of the one
they have. 


Looking at Dion’s usage
during his time as a Leaf it seems like there’s a few things worth noting. The
Leafs have been consistently been scaling back his 5v5 ice time (though still
relying heavily on him for special teams), and he’s very much a high event
player. Phaneuf’s Corsi Rel has been tied to the strength of his defensive
partners. His best years, by far came with playing with a healthy Carl
Gunnarsson or Francois Beauchemin, and he suffered as Gunnarsson’s hip
situation worsened and Phaneuf was forced to play with a revolving door of
young players and bounce back and forth from the left and right side of the

The truth seems to be that
Phaneuf isn’t really capable of carrying a top pairing, but with adequate
support he can be a decent half of it. Fortunately, we are beginning to see the
rise of Morgan Rielly and that may be the opportunity to move Phaneuf into a
more sheltered role, or potentially test the two players together, the answer
to what will be done with Phaneuf probably lies in what Babcock has done in the
past with the Red Wings.


The one player I have
absolutely no intention of comparing Dion to is Nicklas Lidstrom, and that’s
probably because Lidstrom is arguably the greatest defenseman that we’ve seen
over the past 20 years. That said, Lidstrom had a couple of rougher looking
years in his 30s before Rafalski arrived, and the year that Brad Stuart became
his defensive partner. And as you can see below, Brad Stuart is somewhat of a
possession deficit no matter where he’s played.


He would see his numbers rebound in his
retirement season, but played in more sheltered situations with his new
defensive partner, Ian White.


Brian Rafalski definitely
saw some of the best years of his career during his time with Mike Babcock, but
that’s also largely due to Rafalski spending the majority of his time in
Detroit with Nicklas Lidstrom. The Leafs certainly don’t have the opportunity
to pair Phaneuf with anyone of that caliber so the interesting story with
Rafalski mostly comes from his 2010-11 retirement season where Rafalski managed
to put up 44 assists (48 points) with his new defensive partner Jonathan Ericsson.
Certainly the Leafs have defensemen as talented as Jonathan Ericsson available
to play with Phaneuf, but it’s debatable that Phaneuf even now is as good as
Rafalski in his late 30s.

The interesting thing
about the 2010-11 season was that Babcock split up his top pairing of Lidstrom
and Rafalski, and paired Stuart with Lidstrom as his top pairing and Ericsson
with Rafalski as his second. Lidstrom’s numbers suffered while Rafalski thrived
although with a declined quality of competition. It seems reasonable to believe
that Phaneuf also has the potential to thrive in the NHL as a second pairing
defenseman, although there is still the small matter of identifying who on the
Leafs can be that top pairing if Phaneuf slides down the depth chart.

As I alluded to earlier,
Phaneuf is a different type of player than either Lidstrom or Rafalski, and in
the case of Lidstrom definitely not in same class of talent, and with Rafalski,
he at best matches up to some of Rafalski’s later years well past his prime.
However, recently Mike Babcock has worked with a defenseman who’s style is more
comparable to Dion, and that player is Niklas Kronwall.

Kronwall, like Dion, is a
big hitter who contributes offensively, but was at his best when he was the
second or third best defenseman on the team. Like Phaneuf, Kronwall has
recently seen a scaling back of his 5v5 time so that the team can utilize him
more on special teams, but unlike Phaneuf he has benefited from having a
consistent partner over the past few seasons and he’s stuck with Jonathan
Ericsson when Ericsson has been healthy enough to be in the lineup. 


The Ericsson-Kronwall
pairing is many ways similar to the Gunnarsson-Phaneuf or Beauchemin-Phaneuf
pairings, as Ericsson is the stronger positional, lower risk player, but still
capable of doing more than chipping the puck out or being as equally high risk.
Prior to this season’s sharp drop off, the last time Kronwall’s relative possession
numbers suffered were when it was his turn to be Brad Stuart’s defensive
partner in 2011-12, and in both seasons he had positive CF%, as did most Wings.

The biggest challenge that
Mike Babcock is going to face with Phaneuf is matching him with a partner, but
also finding an opportunity to move him back into a second pairing. If you view
Morgan Rielly as the top pairing guy and want to use him separate of Phaneuf
you are also taking away the only defensive partner that Phaneuf had that he
was able to combine with for a CF% of 50% (albeit in 66 minutes of ice time
together). The next most successful partner from last season was Jake Gardiner
at 48.9% CF%, but pairing higher risk players together may be a risk, even in a
second pairing setting. Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas not surprisingly didn’t
do so well with Dion, so the best option outside of being on the top pairing
with Rielly may come in the form of Martin Marincin, who’s style is similar to
that of Carl Gunnarsson or Jonathan Ericsson.  

Right now it’s pretty
clear that the Leafs aren’t yet to where they want to be with defence, a point
that Mike
Babcock has acknowledged recently

“We’ve got to find a marquee
defenceman to help us out, for sure. We’ll do that when the time is right.”

If the time isn’t right this
summer, (it probably won’t be) it likely means once again overextending Dion
Phaneuf, either by using him in the top pairing or by giving him a
non-complimentary partner. In the initial stages of the rebuild that seems
unimportant, but if the Leafs are looking to salvage the later years of his
contract, it’s not a need that can be ignored for long. Mike Babcock has done
well with his older defencemen and with a consistent partner and an opportunity
to play within the limits of his game, it seems entirely possible that success
could continue with Phaneuf. We’ll just need to come to terms with the fact his contract is less than ideal.


  • STAN

    Excellent piece. Lots of respect for all the work you’ve done with numbers and research.

    I still wonder whether Babcock can make Phaneuf faster and smarter. Phaneuf has always been a lousy backwards skater and if that isn’t improved I don’t see much hope.

    But… perhaps Babcock has a few ideas.

    Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Babcock’s praise is just a smokescreen and that he and the rest of the management team are working hard to move him.

    • Gary Empey

      Phaneuf came up into the NHL when hooking, holding, slashing, cross-checking anyone screening the goalie, and boarding were all a big part of most defensemen’s arsenal. Like a lot of defensemen from that era he has had trouble adjusting to the new closely called rules.
      Only the open ice hard check seems to be left and that is often called as too high or low or too hard.
      This is why his weak skating backwards becomes a liability.

      Like you I am not sure what can be done by Babcock to lessen the impact.

      As far as being tired late in the game I don’t blame Phaneuf. I blame the coaches for miss-using him.

      • SEER

        Agreed.., but he doesn’t even seem to be doing much of those open-ice, hard checks anymore.. He really needs to get with the program.. and hone his other skills.., or else the younger kids in the NHL are all going to fly right past him…

        The League is going to get tougher and tougher in the coming years, with physical plays… I think that’s why we are seeing more European players coming into the system.. These kids don’t have a lot of that in their game, because of the different rulings over there…

        Dubas & Hunter are thinking ahead… It’s refreshing to see most of the “old school” thinking gone from management…

      • CMpuck

        Actually he didn’t Phaneuf’s rookie year was just coming out of the lost entire season when the NHL was cracking down on obstruction and teams where getting hammered with penalties.

        Phaneuf never play a game in the clutch and grab era.

  • SEER

    I have to agree with Stan above..and say that it is a well thought out and referenced article.., but.. I still have a heck of a lot of doubts about Dion getting better..

    Not saying it’s not possible.., as he did have parts of good seasons in the last two.., but he seems to run out of gas really fast (every game.. 3rd periods being the worst).. and having been a D-man in my younger years.., I am always astounded at how bad he is at skating backwards… It’s just not what you expect from an NHL D-man, never mind a 1st line one..

    I have a lot of respect for Babs, though.. and if anyone can get improvement from Dion.., it will be him…, although…, I also believe.., that he will be the first Leaf coach to sit Dion in the Press Box.., should he have a string of bad games.. and I still believe that the “C” should be replaced with an “A” for season start.. and that we should have no Captain, until someone “proves” they are worthy of wearing the “C”…

    I make player montages for almost everyone, though.., so here’s the last one I made for for Dion (there weren’t enough goals/highlights for the 2014-15 season):




    Okay.. I read up a lot more about him.. and now I feel a bit better about the signing… Just didn’t like him thumping out Marlies, last season.. LOL!



  • SEER

    Has babcock had much success developing a young dman like Rielly or improve an established but struggling dman like Phaneuf?

    Dekeyser/Quincey and Zidlickey are what I come up with off the top of my head but they are not the best examples. And I have a hard time separating Babcock as a coach of quality players like Lidstrom/Pavel/Zetterburg or coaching Team Canada. And what we should realistically expect Babcock to do with more mediocre talent

    • Detroit does anything but rush defensive prospects into the league, but Brendan Smith, Jonathan Ericsson, and Niklas Kronwall are probably his biggest success stories for developing defensemen in Detroit.

      Best example of what Babcock can do with mediocre talent is probably from his time in Anaheim, taking the Ducks to the finals even though it wasn’t that great a roster. Or the fact that Detroit really isn’t that good anymore, but he was able to keep them in the playoffs.

  • I really thought Gardiner was ready to take the next step heading into last season. So I hold out hope again for this year..


    Spread the minutes however you will, but I think the pairings would should be something along these lines. Last year I had Franson in Polak’s spot and Polak with Robidas.

    Is it possible the Leafs carry 8 defensemen? Or does Marincin still toil in the minors more because I think Brennan stays.

    • Kanuunankuula

      No no no, no Robidas. Marincin atleast did okay with D-zone starts and tough competition in Edmonton. I would go:
      Robidas sits until someone is dead or their leg is coming off.

      I think if they don’t keep Dion as the minutemuncher, they’ll be okay. And Babs never had the young talent of Rielly and Gardiner in Detroit.

      • Gary Empey

        C’mon, lets be realistic. Babcock will play Robidas, we can hate as fans but Babcock is the coach.. He may only play 50ish games between swapping in Brennan and Hunwick in his place on that third pairing.

        I think Babcock would rather see Marincin get ample playing time in the AHL or carry 8 defensemen unless we see a trade/injury. Robidas will be a veteran presence with NHL experience on that blueline.

  • Harte of a Lion

    It’s fun to speculate who plays with who, however with 50 contracts on the books once Bernier signs another trade or two before the season begins is likely.

    There was/is interest in Polak and since the Ducks seem to value Nonis opinions, maybe he can convince the Ducks to reacquire Robidas. Last year he felt that he still had 3M/season legs when he signed him (Nonis final mistake) for three years. We could hold salary, or even hold his pecker while he pees, whatever it takes.

    Based on the players we currently have, Marincin or Hunwick seem a good fit beside Phaneuf. A Reilly/ Gardiner experiment imight be in the cards as well.
    From what I have read, Rielly & Gardiner have decent stats when playing together although it was based on a small sample size.

    If you spread out the ice time evenly between all six/seven d-men, especially since we do not yet have a dominant 1st pairing, Phaneuf will benefit tremendously and should be fresher in the 3rd period.

    I am certain of one thing, whatever players start the season on d will be a very different group than the one that finishes in April 2016.

    • Gary Empey

      No rookies are ready. Granberg is the closest but with Brennan most likely graduating fulltime to the Leafs, the Hunwick signing and Marincin trade, its unlikely anyone graduates.

        • CMpuck

          It says exactly what I said, no one is ready. So don’t be upset that there seems to be no room for graduating Marlies that aren’t ready!

          And even out closest home grown talent, Granberg, is behind a guy we traded for, Marincin, and he himself might be in the AHL with him next season – granted Brennan sticks and they don’t keep 8 D on the roster.

  • Gary Empey

    The Leafs defense and goalies will both have
    better numbers when the Leafs forwards play under Babcock’s system-and when the 1st line is not such a liability as last year.

    I think we can count on Robidas having a better year
    this year
    as last year he was just coming off two broken legs the year before.

    I really would like Percy to make the team this year.

  • SEER

    As many others, I agree Phaneuf’s backward skating ability leaves MUCH to be desired!

    It seems to me that he far prefers to be skating forward, i.e. lugging the puck up-ice and if not at the net, at least in the corner hoping he can do something with the puck when a teammate makes himself available.

    Why not move Phaneuf to left wing, play him every third or fourth shift (thus allowing him “recovery time”) and giving the other four skaters on the ice the opportunity to play THEIR positions, rather than constantly having to cover up for Phaneuf at the blue line?

    This option would also give him the opportunity to be a grinder along the boards which he seems to relish!

  • SEER

    Great Article.
    I’ve been saying for years that Dion was being used the wrong way. Without that solid #1 guy to play with, he should be on the second pairing. His contract makes it hard to do that. If the Leafs are going to give it to him, you can’t fault Dion for signing for that kind of money.

    Babcock will use him the proper way, and a lot of Phaneuf-haters will start to look foolish.