On a Friday night early last season in Columbus, Ohio, the Canadian television feed of the Leafs-Blue Jackets game zoomed in on a heated discussion between Jared Boll and Dion Phaneuf. As they neared their respective benches, rinkside microphones picked up the following comment from Boll:
“Nobody likes you”.
That got me thinking: how had Dion Phaneuf fallen so far out of favour? A big, tough, Canadian kid from the Prairies who could hit, shoot and fight, all while being reasonably mobile. If you can find me a more stereotypical (NHL) hockey player, please let me know. So how did a guy with his genetic gifts and skillset, who burst onto the National Hockey League scene with 54 goals in his first three seasons from the back end, and who, according to both Hockey-Reference.com and war-on-ice.com consistently drove possession, become so scorned?
Last week’s trade to the Ottawa Senators ended his often-tumultuous stay in Toronto, so let’s have a bit of a post-mortem, shall we?
Dion Phaneuf broke in with the Calgary Flames in 2005-06 as a rookie defenceman and promptly put up 20 goals, including 16 on the Power Play. He followed this up with two seasons of 17 goals, and, at the end of 2008-09, his fourth NHL season, had accumulated 65 Goals and 206 Points – first and sixth, respectively, amongst NHL defencemen during that timespan. These impressive offensive numbers were complimented by his reputation for laying bone-crushing hits – that were usually squeaky-clean, I might add.
He was submerged deep within a strong Flames defence core which included stalwart, if unspectacular, veterans such as Roman Hamrlík, Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich and Rhett Warrener, all of whom excelled on the defensive side of the puck. Combine this with the backing of all-world goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff and Dion Phaneuf had full licence to search and destroy, both on the scoresheet and in open ice.
Midway through another solid season in 2009-10 season, Phaneuf was dispatched to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who sold him to fans and media alike as a young, defensive stud who would be THE guy on the blueline of the Blue and White for years to come. A mere four months after his arrival, he was named Team Captain, in June of 2010. However, his arrival in Toronto – a infamously tough media market, along with his status as the Number One defenceman AND Captain for one of the most storied hockey franchises the world has ever seen changed Phaneuf – and not for the better. His game was tamer, more conservative. Ron Wilson’s nonsensical requirement that his defencemen keep two hands on their stick (seriously, it was a thing. Look it up.) did not help matters, but clearly, something was amiss.
Did he receive pressure from his coach, or perhaps from on high, to tone down his exuberance and play a more responsible game? Did he alter his style of play to ingratiate himself to the notoriously savage Toronto media? Maybe he himself felt that, finally being out of the shadow of his mentors in Calgary and being Toronto’s Captain meant his game had to mature. Only he knows.
What I do know is this: his goal-scoring and point production decreased, due in large part to the fact that his once-surgically accurate slapshot began to have trouble splitting the uprights on a football field. His possession numbers for his time in Toronto were brutal. Game-changing hits and end-to-end rushes became few and far between. Having lost the “high-reward” aspects of his play, Phaneuf became merely a “high-risk” player, with defensive coverage that often approached that of the Cheshire Cat.
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I argue that this taming of his game exposed Dion Phaneuf for what he is: a good NHL defenceman, comfortable slotting in anywhere from Number Two through Number Four in your rotation. Not, alas, a Number One. I believe that removing the unpredictability from his game actually made Phaneuf a worse player. Opposing wingers once had second thoughts about streaking through the neutral zone, as they knew Phaneuf might just take a chance and step up on them. Now, they had licence to put their heads down and turnstyle him mercilessly. Agitators felt they could push him around because, they knew that he, as the captain, couldn’t risk taking a bad penalty by responding physically. The rollicking, almost improvised style of play that had made Phaneuf a fan-favourite in Calgary – and across the NHL – was also the very thing that once made him so very effective as an NHL defenceman. And it had been beaten out of him, certainly in Toronto, if not also towards the end of his tenure in Calgary.
And you know what? Absolutely none of this is the fault of Dion Phaneuf. He didn’t ask to be traded to Toronto. He didn’t ask to be the Leafs’ Number One defenceman. He didn’t ask to be captain. He didn’t ask to not receive a half-decent supporting cast. And he didn’t offer himself a contract that pays him $7 million per season.
Dion Phaneuf is an inherently erratic player. It’s just who he is. He can shoot the puck a million kilometres per hour. He can crush you in open ice or along the boards – take your pick. He can play the Power Play and the Penalty Kill. And for goodness’ sake, don’t fight him; he is one scary dude. His jumping up in the play and stepping up for the big hit can leave fans of his team a little clenched, for sure. However, he is a much more valuable player when the opposing team doesn’t know what the heck he is going to do next.
I really hope that Dion Phaneuf, removed from the incredible pressures put on him in Toronto is unleashed in Ottawa and can return to fulfilling his potential. Teach him to pick his spots, sure. But do your best to rekindle some of that old fire.