Since the “Maple Leaf Meltdown” (as Game 7 of the Leafs/Bruins series has been dubbed by EA Sports), there has been a lot of talk about Dion Phaneuf’s value, or lack thereof, to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mostly, the media has given him flak for his performance in the playoffs and his play in general. This is typical of the media in Toronto. Phaneuf has had some big shoes to fill since he took the “C” from Mats Sundin, and as such he’s due for increased criticism. It comes with the territory when you are spoken of in the same light as Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong, Dave Keon, Daryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, and the aforementioned Mats Sundin (all of whom are Hall of Famers).
After reading many of these columns and listening to a lot of sports talk radio, many of these guys want to boot Phaneuf out of town as fast as possible. They call his play “erratic” and that he has too many “lapses of judgement” to be part of a contender in this city.
I don’t buy that crap.
This city, its media, and fans have always had a habit of either overvaluing what it already has, or not appreciating what they have until it’s gone. The expectations for Phaneuf upon his arrival in Toronto were pretty clear. The Leafs needed him to be a top of the line defenceman in the NHL in which he could be trusted to be out there in any situation.
Thus far he’s met those expectations.
Phaneuf has been out there against all the other teams' best forwards, top power play and penalty killing units, and counted on late in games in situational aspects of the game (tie-game, one-goal lead, down a goal, etc). Over the last two-and-a-half years, he’s been pretty consistent on that basis.
So why is the media harassing him? It’s simple really, there’s no such thing as the perfect hockey player.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mistakes in Toronto, especially when you aren’t in the playoffs nine years in a row (and 47 years without a Stanley Cup). The negatives outweigh the positives and the players end up building a wall between themselves and the media just to give themselves a break. Thus it sometimes leads to a misinterpretation of what the contribution is on the ice.
In this case, Dion needs help. While Phaneuf has shown he can be out on the ice in any key moment of the game, as with any player it's clear when he’s tired he makes mistakes. Going into the series with Boston, there was only three players on the blue line who had any type of playoff experience. They were Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, and John-Michael Liles. After those three there are players who just recently solidified themselves as NHLers such as Carl Gunnarsson and Jake Gardiner. The rest of the D-corps was comprised of those on the bubble between the NHL and the AHL. By the time we start looking at games 5-7, the majority of minutes in those games are spent between a trio of rearguards: Phaneuf, Franson, and Gardiner.
Phaneuf's shifts are consistantly longer on average than other Leaf blueliners (up to ten seconds) and this does not seem to always be efficiently sustainable for him. For instance he played more than half (7:04 of 13:06) in the OT of game four -- including one shift of 2:07 -- which the Bruins won when he pinched and allowed Krejci to score the game winner. Carlyle needs to have better options available to him in long games like this one in order to conserve his captain for when he really needs him.
What was shown in the dying moments of games 5-7 was not so much the lack of ability of the defensemen already on this team, but the lack of depth and trust of those that aren’t. The Leafs have had this problem before. After the 2005 Lockout and near the end of his career, Mats Sundin was looked upon by this team to be their top centre, top PK and PP player, top faceoff man, and the centre to be used against the other team’s top line. He needed help during this time but John Ferguson Jr. was too busy using cap space to give Bates Battaglia and Boyd Deveraux raises instead of alleviating some of that pressure for his captain.
Of course with all the suggestions that the Leafs should trade Phaneuf, what has been failed to be recognized is the question: “Who takes his place?”. I’m not talking about as captain, that’s an easy answer as many people feel that Lupul would be more than able to take that. But on the back end, are we really naïve to think that a Gardiner/Reilly led group is an upgrade to this current corps? Do we really think a player who is as valuable as Phaneuf has been will be on the trade market and not have to sell the farm to get him? The easier solution, if we intend on keeping this team intact, is to build around the current group and help them get stronger so that what happened during the “Maple Leaf Meltdown” never happens again.
Now, am I saying that Dion Phaneuf is God’s gift to defencemen? No, absolutely not. He’s a very good player, the top defenceman on this team and near the top on any other team. I used to say that that the Maple Leafs were a team of spare parts with no core. That’s not the case anymore. I believe guys like Kessel, Lupul and Phaneuf are part of that core. Are any of them centrepieces? No, but that’s ok, those are few and far between. The way this current team is constructed is that if there is any chance of them being successful, they will need to build upon that core, along with the “spare parts”, in order to be a contender.
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