Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Or, in the case of the suddenly slumping Toronto Maple Leafs, the captain’s C.
Dion Phaneuf, for a whole host of reasons, has been the most controversial member of the Leafs pretty much from Day 1 back in January of 2010 when he was acquired, just as he was in Calgary before that.
When they made him the 18th captain of the Leafs a little more than four months later, the nitpicking really set in.
Some don’t like his attitude or the way he comes off in interviews on TV, where his ponderous on-camera persona doesn’t do him any favours.
Some don’t like the flashy clothes and starlet wife, a lifestyle which had a brief close-up on HBO’s 24/7 in December, including a long pan of a remarkable closet.
And some, frankly, just don’t like his game, particularly when it includes the kind of brain-dead miscues that were glaring in Tuesday’s loss – the Leafs’ sixth in a row – to the St. Louis Blues.
“It’s been a very trying time for our team,” Phaneuf admitted on Wednesday as he made the rounds on both Toronto sports radio stations. “I was emotional after the game … I was disappointed with the way I played and mistakes that I made.”
Now some of the Phaneuf criticism out there is fair and some of it’s not.
On the personality side, those that know him well will tell you he’s an entirely different person at the rink (and with the media) than away from it. His charity work is extensive, his reputation among his teammates and coaches is high, and his work ethic is, too.
But that’s all obviously secondary to what happens on the ice, and it’s there where the issues are more complex.
If you look back over Phaneuf’s career, the one year that stands out among all the rest is 2007-08. In his 22-year-old season, he finished second in Norris Trophy voting (to Nick Lidstrom), scored 17 goals and had 60 points in what remains, six years later, a career high.
Midway through that season, he signed the $39-million contract from the Flames that he’s playing on to this day, and his ticket as a budding superstar seemed punched.
But his star has fallen since then. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 in Norris voting after three consecutive years there to start his career. And if you look at this season, his point pace has dropped to almost half what it was (34 points).
What’s important to note about Phaneuf’s career year in Calgary isn’t necessarily the production. What was starkly different was actually the fact he wasn’t relied on to be all things in all situations.
He split time playing with Anders Eriksson and Adrian Aucoin on a type of sheltered, offence-first second unit while stay-at-homers Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich drew the defensive zone faceoffs and first-line assignments.
They didn’t trust Phaneuf to do the heavy lifting. And it makes you wonder how much he’s been miscast in Toronto.
Under Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, Phaneuf starts a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any defenceman in the NHL. He faces a higher quality of competition than any other defenceman, including getting pummelled by David Backes’s big line in Tuesday’s loss.
He is, in short, in the Chris Pronger role without being Chris Pronger, and if you look at the over all results, they’re not always pretty.
Toronto, a team outshot by an extreme 8.3 shots per game, has been outshot 1039-811 with Phaneuf on the ice this season – or nearly 40 per cent of that ugly shot differential.
(Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s also last in the league in penalty differential, with 26 more minors taken than he has drawn.)
“If you’re giving up that many shots, you’re spending a lot of time in your zone,” he told TSN Radio at one point. “And when you’re defending, that wears on everybody.”
Phaneuf is a good but flawed player. He showed in Calgary how much of a weapon he can be at one end of the ice, with his big shot and offensive instincts. In that role, he can potentially earn the behemoth new extension he signed earlier this year.
But if the Leafs are going to continue to cast him as a king, a player that can fill the Pronger role and do everything, the mixed results are at least partly on them. More than anything, he looks like another Leafs player that needs some help, just as he had in his former home.
More reasonable expectations wouldn’t hurt either.
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