Monday, October 22, 2012

Dion Phaneuf: Seeing The Leafs' Captain For What He Is

When it comes to balancing fandom and player valuations, there are 3 basic categories: underrated, overrated, appropriately-rated. A lot of factors are at play when applying one of these labels, including; past performance, age, pedigree, salary, team situation...etc. You can spend countless hours at a local pub or over BBM (as I’m wont to do [Ed. Note: I can confirm this]) arguing over where a certain player should fall. 

What’s interesting is that there are some rare players who skew so far to one side or another that they eventually find themselves on the other end of the spectrum. This brings me to our quasi-beloved Captain, Dion Phaneuf; so consistently labelled overrated in the media (and even by his peers) that he may be in the process of becoming underrated.

He broke into the league on fire (quite literally, there was a flame on his chest) amassing 49 points, 242 shots, and an array of jaw-dropping open ice hits that conjured up wistful memories of a young Scott Stevens. Add to that being a Calder finalist alongside a couple guys named Sid and Ovie and the expectations for Dion were set astronomically high. Yes, from the very beginning, Phaneuf was likely destined to be overrated, failing to deliver on the meteoric expectations heaped upon him. What’s lost beneath the stories of an unceremonious departure from Calgary and mere mortal point totals of late is that the 27-year old Edmonton native might actually be a pretty good hockey player.

We wanted to highlight a few of Dion's basic stats and a few of the more advanced ones to see if the poster boy for over-valuation may in fact be considered so overrated that we’re not fully appreciating what he does bring to the team.

Time On Ice

Last year Dion had an average ice time of 25:17 per game. This placed him 10th in the league, ahead of some major minute eating stalwarts such as; Zdeno Chara, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, and Brent Seabrook. While ice time isn’t necessarily an indicator of talent, it can be used directionally to show a players value to his team.

I’ve written before that it would be interesting to see Dion playing nearer to 22 or 23 minutes per game, allowing him to be more explosive and take more chances on the offensive side of the puck. My hypothesis being that he sometimes manages his minutes since there are so many of them.

Shots on Goal

One of the great aspects of Phaneuf's game is his willingness to shoot the puck. Over the last three years he has compiled 225, 190, and 202 shots, respectively.  In 2011-12 he placed in a tie for 8th overall for defensemen SOG.

7 – P.K. Subban: 205

T8 – Alex Pietrangelo: 202

T8 – Dion Phaneuf: 202

10 – Brent Burns: 201

11 – Kieth Yandle: 196

Additionally, of the top 20 defensemen in SOG, Dion had the 7th best shooting percentage at a respectable 5.9 percent. Indicating that he isn’t just wildly padding his shot totals with needless attempts (a-la Jason Blake).

Zone Starts

Throughout the season Dion is used as the number one option on defense both on the power play and the penalty kill. However, even at even strength he isn’t given the nearly the number of 5 on 5 offensive zone starts as other Leafs, shown below:

Jake Gardiner: 56.0%

Cody Franson: 52.0%

John Micheal-Liles: 51.6%

Luke Schenn: 50.7%

Dion Phaneuf: 50.0%

Carl Gunnarsson: 45.4%

Michael Komisarek: 42.4%

This shows that at even strength the pairing of Phaneuf and Gunnarsson is being given the more difficult defensive zone starts. This serves to highlight that Dion is being counted on to lead the D corps both in generating offence and in a shut down role.

Note: Mike Komisarek's lack of O-zone starts likely has less to do with the team saving him for the defensive end and more to do with his inability to play hockey.  

Offensive Production

Yes, I know for you budding statisticians out there looking at goals and assists is a tad passe -- like using RBI and runs to value a baseball player (so 1990s). But, as long as hockey remains a goal scoring competition wherein the team with more goals wins it's still something worthy of consideration. When it comes to offensive production from the back end there are few who do it more consistently across the board than Phaneuf.

In 2011-12 he finished in a tie for 7th in goals for defensemen, with 12 . Overall he put up 44 points, leaving him 12th among blue liners, ahead of notables like Keith Yandle, Kimmo Timonen, Niklas Kronwall, and Drew Doughty.

On the power play he was considerably more potent, contributing 7 goals, the 4th most in the league. Here he only trailed Zdeno Chara (8), Jason Garrison (9), and the 14-million dollar man Shea Weber (10).

I don’t mean to completely glaze over Dion’s faults, because we all know they exist. He can at times appear lethargic in his own end and is prone to mistakes at the other team's blue line that can lead to odd man rushes in the opposite direction. The bone crunching open ice hits don’t appear as frequently as they did in Calgary, perhaps a symptom of added fatigue, or maybe Dion is just getting older.

He certainly has his warts, and there are many that haven’t been listed above. Phaneuf may never again eclipse the 20 goal mark, or score 60 points, two feats he accomplished in Calgary. No, you wouldn’t build your team around him over Crosby or Ovechkin, you wouldn’t even take him as one of the top 5 defensemen in the league.

As we look to Phaneuf to lead the Leafs' defence in the post lockout NHL I hope we can look at him for what he is. He shouldn’t be forced to sink under the immense weight of the superstar potential he flashed out West. Moving forward I hope to avoid using either the overrated or underrated label when describing Phaneuf, and simply refer to him as a very good and productive NHL defenseman – and that’s something you can never have too many of.

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