If you’ve been noticing a lot more of Dion Phaneuf in the offensive zone these days, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.
And he’s had some company, too, with many of the Toronto Maple Leafs other defencemen jumping into the play to join him.
Heading into Monday’s games, the Leafs were tied for 18th in the NHL in scoring at even strength, a huge drop from a year ago, and a pressing issue as they’ve begun to allow more goals against.
That’s led to the coaching staff to call on their blueline to jump up in the play and make something happen – a trend that’s been evident over Toronto’s recent 6-1-1 stretch in its last eight games.
The results haven’t always been pretty from a goals-against perspective – with 12 goals allowed in their last two games – but with the Leafs spending so much time in their own end this season, the defence being more opportunistic and involved in the offensive side of things was a needed change.
“We’re trying to play more of an aggressive style and have more of a five-man attack mentality,” defenceman Jake Gardiner explained. “Not just sit back.”
“We’ve tried to instil some confidence in them that they have the green light to go when the situation presents itself,” head coach Randy Carlyle added. “You see the teams that are having success: Their [defencemen] are very active. They’re doing a lot of pinching on the walls. They’re joining the rush. They’re coming late. They’re active in the cycle. We’re just trying to stress that.”
It’s a switch that’s been working.
After scoring only 11 goals in the first 47 games of the season, the Leafs blueline now has eight in the last seven outings, with Gardiner leading the way (three). The defence is also producing 2.15 points per game in January, compared to 1.73 in the first three months, with the vast majority of that difference coming at even strength.
But the most interesting shift on the Toronto blueline has been what’s happening with Phaneuf, whose offensive game had been mired in a nearly season-long slump.
Prior to his recent run of four points in seven games, the Leafs captain was on pace for only 30 points in 80 games – an anomaly given, over the previous eight seasons, only six NHL defencemen have put up more points.
Part of the reason is his role has been slanted so heavily toward being a shutdown type, at least until the Leafs acquired defenceman Tim Gleason on New Year’s Day.
Since he entered the lineup, Gleason has been starting twice as many shifts in the defensive zone as the offensive one, which has freed Phaneuf up for far more of those offensive situations.
His zone start ratio, for example, has climbed from one of the lowest in the league (well below 40 per cent) prior to Gleason’s arrival to closer to respectable. Phaneuf’s possession rating, meanwhile, is also way up, from an average of 40 per cent prior to Gleason arriving to more than 48 per cent the last 11 games with both defencemen in the lineup.
Add in the fact Gleason is also taking over some of the captain’s penalty killing duties, and you can see why the Leafs have now been averaging more than three goals a game again.
Given his skill set, it makes a lot of sense for Phaneuf to be used in more of an attacking role and less like a defensive defenceman who gets power-play time, which is essentially what he had been turning into under Carlyle.
Gleason may not be a world-beater in his own end, but Carlyle trusts him and can load him up with those tough minutes without sacrificing any offence. And that appears to be helping keep the puck out of the Toronto end.
Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle