Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Good and The Bad of Dion Phaneuf (and other musings)

Yesterday I wrote about three young goal scorers on the Toronto Maple Leafs and all three of them were at it again tonight.

Kulemin started the scoring for the Leafs, netting his 23rd of the season.  Kessel scored the Leafs' second goal of the night giving him 27 and Grabovski finished the night off with his 25th.  Grabbo and Kessel each had two points on the night.

It was a huge win for the Leafs who are now 4 points back of the Hurricanes with 18 left to play.  Buffalo might have the advantage on both of those teams as they're only two points out but have two games in hand.  I know it's going to be tough and a lot will have to go right for us to squeak in but come on, we're pretty close.

Tonight we saw the good and the bad of Dion Phaneuf.  For those of you who didn't see the game, in the 7th minute of the second period, Phaneuf took a horrible line on Chris Conner who was flying through the neutral zone.  Matt Niskanen hit him on the tape with a beautiful pass and Conner slipped the puck past Reimer.  Phaneuf is going to catch a lot of bad press for this play (even more so had the Leafs lost) but the truth is that it was a tough play.  It was a mistake, no doubt about it, and the kind of error you wouldn't have seen your average defensive defenseman make.  It also wasn't your run-of-the-mill McCabe-esque glaring error.  I would hazard to say that the average guy that calls in to sports talk radio shows probably wouldn't have noticed Phaneuf's gaffe if the commentators hadn't drawn attention to it.

Then we saw Phaneuf's better side.  In overtime he took the space that the Penguins gave him as the teams were skating 4-on-4 and carried the puck from behind his net through the neutral zone and deep into Pittsburgh's end.  It wasn't remarkable stick handling or blinding speed but it was good recognition of what was available to him.  He held the puck in the corner, picked out Gunnarsson on the point and began the play that won the Leafs the game.

At the end of the day, this is what you're going to get from Phaneuf.  He's going to be physical in a 'game changing' kind of way but he's going to overcommit sometimes and it will lead to chances the other way.  He's got a cannon of a shot and some years he'll score a bunch of goals but he focuses more on power than accuracy and will miss the net an absurd amount.  He reads the play pretty well offensively but reads it pretty poorly defensively.

Phaneuf is most valuable on a good team.  The Leafs are trying to become a good team.  His best years in the NHL were when Calgary was a top team in the league.  He wasn't the one making Calgary a great team, he just happens to thrive in that environment.  Lots of chances (and he'll capitalize on some) and good enough defense and goaltending to cover up his deficiencies.  The better the Leafs are, the more valuable a player Phaneuf will be.

Phaneuf's in-zone defense has been better this year.  He's playing a ton of minutes and has been throughout this run the Leafs have been making.  His stats aren't great, they aren't even good, but he's making a difference and lately it's been in a positive way.

I heard a story once about a guy whose nickname was 'The Factor'.  He was the kind of player who had an impact on the game everytime he was on the ice -- it just wasn't always a positive impact for his team.  I see Phaneuf as 'The Factor' for the Leafs.  Lately, it's been more good than bad.

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