I think that Dion Phaneuf is a good defenceman. I don’t think he’s quite in the NHL’s elite but I’d put him in the group right below that.
There was a time when he was talked about as being the Next Big Thing, which I suspect kind of irritated a lot of people – this Steve Staios/Ethan Moreau edition of After Hours when they were asked about Phaneuf is my favourite expression of disdain ever. There’s room between Bobby Orr and Denis Gauthier though and I’ve always thought he was a heck of a lot closer to Orr than he was to Gauthier.
Part of the fallout of the Leafs’ implosion in Toronto has been a torrent of criticism for Phaneuf, who signed a seven year deal worth $49MM during the season. There are people who are now discussing whether or not the deal is tradeable. There seems to be a group of people in Toronto who think that he isn’t a number one defenceman and may only be a number two. (I’ve never understood distinguishing between a number one D and a number two D either; they play in pairs…but that’s a topic for another day.)
What I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about is how Phaneuf’s performance has changed over the years. Let’s talk about a specific scenario: after a lost defensive zone faceoff. For reasons that I’ve previously set out here, I consider that there’s a faceoff effect that lasts for 37 seconds post-DZ faceoff loss at 5v5. During this time, the team that just lost the draw will get about 25% of the shots attempts – a 25% Corsi%. Here’s Phaneuf:
From 2007-08 through 2010-11, Phaneuf was at or above average in this aspect of the game. Since then, he’s gone completely off the rails, culminating in this year’s astonishing 12.9% Corsi% post-DZ faceoff loss, which shattered the previous low figure for a defenceman (min. 200 DZ faceoff losses), a 17.1% posted by Brett Clark in 2008-09. Here’s how he’s done in Toronto:
Note how, if we compare 2010-12 to 2013-14, the SAF per faceoff are down by 0.12 and the SAA per faceoff are up by 0.12. When Phaneuf’s on the ice in these situations, the Maple Leafs have essentially traded some SAF for SAA over the past few years. It doesn’t seem like a very good trade to me (this is deliberate understatement – obviously, it’s a terrible thing to happen).
I’ve put together a graph of the shot attempts against during Phaneuf’s time in Toronto. I’ve split it into three chunks – his arrival in 2010 through the end of the 2011-12 season, 2012-13 and 2013-14.
As you can see from the graph, the Leafs allowed pretty similar levels of shot attempts through the first nine seconds post-DZ faceoff loss with Phaneuf on the ice in the three periods that I’m isolating. If we treat 2010-12 as a baseline, they allowed 2.1% more shot attempts in 2012-13 and 5.5% more shot attempts in 2013-14. It’s not really worth getting that excited about.
Seconds 10 through 22 though? Uh oh. In 2010-12, they allowed 0.214 shot attempts per DZ faceoff loss in that time period with Phaneuf on the ice. In 2012-13, that number ballooned to .299 shot attempts against per DZ faceoff loss with Phaneuf on-ice. This year, it was .302 shot attempts against per DZ faceoff loss with Phaneuf on-ice. Those are 40% and 41% increases respectively.
From second 23 through second 37, Phaneuf was on the ice for 0.179 shot attempts against in 2010-12, .143 in 2012-13 and .190 in 2013-14. Not really much of a difference – there was a reduction in 2012-13 but it’s not nearly as big as the increase from seconds 10 to 22 was and so there was a big net gain.
Taken as a whole, this tells us something fairly critical. Something changed, whether it’s Phaneuf, the players around him, or the tactics, between 2010-12 and subsequent years that resulted in the Leafs suffering a sort of bulge in the rate at which they allowed shot attempts in those 13 seconds.
Let’s look at the other side of the coin: shot attempts for.
Through about nine seconds, there are basically no shot attempts. If you think about the data in hockey terms, this makes sense – if you lose a defensive zone faceoff, you have to recover the puck, break out and enter the offensive zone before a shot attempt can happen. I’m a bit hesitant to read a lot into this graph because of the potential for small sample weirdness – there aren’t a lot of shot attempts for following defensive zone faceoff losses. That being said, you can see that in both 2012-13 and 2013-14, the shot attempt for rate stays with the 2010-12 rate for a few seconds before falling away.
Interestingly, the shot attempt for rate falls away after nine (2012-13) and sixteen (2013-14) seconds – in other words, around the same time when the shot attempt against rate is exploding relative to what happened in 2010-12. This would, I think, be consistent with the idea that the puck is exiting the Leafs’ end of the ice in these situations a heck of a lot less quickly than it used to.
To really tie this down, you’d want data on the time of zone entries/exits. I suspect that we’d find that it’s taken the Leafs much longer in the past two seasons to get the puck out of their own end when they lose a DZ faceoff with Phaneuf on the ice. I’m skeptical that this has anything to do with Phaneuf – as I’ve discussed before, Carlyle’s teams have a tendency to struggle in these situations. I suspect some video review would also show that there’s a lot less pressure on the puck once the faceoff is lost and a lot more collapsing towards the middle of the defensive zone.
I kind of wonder whether the Leafs haven’t sort of gotten into a bit of a cycle of becoming more and more collapsey following DZ faceoff losses. If the response to goals going in hasn’t been “Well, we need to play tighter” rather than “Well, we need to have the puck battles further away from the net.” It’s all a bit misleading I think because we (people) have a tendency to try and address the mistake that we see rather than the one we don’t see. We see the guy blow his coverage on Steven Stamkos in front of the net. We don’t see the decision that led to the puck being in a position where someone beating their coverage gave them an easy pass to Stamkos.
Incidentally, I had someone ask me what this is all worth. Just on the DZ losses when Phaneuf’s on ice, I put the difference between 2010-12 and 2013-14 at 2.5 goal difference. That’s a point in the standings. Not to beat the drums for data again (I suspect that I’m mostly preaching to the converted) but it’s easy to find this stuff once you build the data and an organization that built better data would be able to isolate it that much more quickly.Email Tyler Dellow at email@example.com