Somebody must have put something in my water because I think I’m seeing things. While looking for some content to discuss in this week’s Stealing Money I found Kevin McGran of The Toronto Star praising Dion Phaneuf. It’s not often that you find Toronto Star articles saying nice things about the Leafs, so when it does occur it certainly stands out. Upon reading further though, the article demonstrates many incorrect staples that I’ve grown to be accustomed to in Star pieces.
The article begins with McGran claiming Phaneuf has turned the corner this year and is maturing as the Captain of the blue and white. It’s odd that McGran brings this up because Phaneuf’s play this season isn’t any different than it has been during the first two seasons of his captaincy. McGran makes the claim that:
On the ice, he is having his best year as a Leaf. Maybe not in the points sense — and putting up points has always been a big part of his game — but overall, he’s delivering the big game-changing hits, moving the puck out of his zone and seems to be in better position more often.
Phaneuf’s shots against per 60 minutes have gone from 26.1 in 2011-12 to 31.6 in 2013 to 33.7 so far this season. His time on ice through those three seasons has gone from 25:17 to 25:11 to 24:18. While McGran mentions that Phaneuf’s offense has dropped off, both his defensive zone play and time on ice has dropped off as well. This season has also seen Randy Carlyle deploy Phaneuf in the same manner (against the oppositions’ best players) as he has in previous seasons. Meaning Dion is playing the same shutdown role he has since he arrived in Toronto. Perhaps McGran is just more perceptive than most, but in my opinion Phaneuf’s positioning is not dramatically (if at all) different than it has been in the past. The Leafs transition game has been atrocious all season and Phaneuf has not been any different in that department either. Yes, Phaneuf threw two big body checks against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night. Other than those, and maybe the one on Kyle Palmieri of the Anaheim Ducks, has Phaneuf been that much more physical? Ask Stephan Da Costa, Tuomo Ruutu, John Tavares or Chris Kelly about #3 in blue and white throwing big hits the past few seasons.
It is not my intention to sit here and criticize Phaneuf. I think he is crucial member of the team and I have written multiple times that he is a very good leader of this team. Where I stand confused is with McGran’s assertion that he has somehow raised his game this season and matured. There is no evidence to support this claim and McGran attributing it to finally having a “rock solid” defense partner like Carl Gunnarsson is absurd considering they’ve played together the past two seasons. In fact, the data shows that Phaneuf (along with the Leafs entire blueline unit) has not been as good this season as he was in the previous two. What is McGran basing this on then?
The real reason McGran wrote his article though is:
Off the ice, he [Phaneuf] seems a little more at ease in front of the cameras, a little more willing to speak beyond the game and its clichés.
This is something that is not discussed enough but is critical in how members of the Leafs are treated. We all remember the backlash towards Phil Kessel because he failed to talk to the media prior to the post season last spring. Phaneuf (like Kessel) is not the best interview and for that reason many members of the media have wondered aloud about his ability to lead. We have seen in the past (see Komisarek, Mike) how joking around and provide quotes for the media go a long way in this city. Phaneuf is now providing more to the media and is therefore viewed as someone who is growing into being Captain of the Leafs. Of course dealing with the media in this market is a big part of what comes with being Captain. However, I’m pretty sure Phaneuf demonstrated how a Captain responds when he answered the music following the loss in Game 4 of the playoffs last year. Dion then responded on the ice by raising his game at both ends leading the Leafs all the way back in that series.
McGran’s article oddly enough fits in with what Stealing Money is all about. While the majority of the time this feature is spent debunking negative articles written about the Leafs, in this instance a positive article like McGran’s deserves to be recognized as well. Dion Phaneuf has been an above average defenseman for the Leafs since Brian Burke brought him to Toronto. His game became better once the C was put on his sweater and he has been accountable during his time here. Just because he no longer provides beat guys like McGran with cliche answers though doesn’t mean he has taken the next step in maturing as a leader. It’s sad that this is what it took for Dion to begin to receive the recognition he deserves.