What’s Wrong With Dion Phaneuf?

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf has been a great contributor to the Leafs’ dismal 14-19-4 record which puts the team 4th last in the league.  This season the current Leafs captain has given Leafs fans very little to cheer about.  Phaneuf has been a liability offensively, defensively, and a letdown physically.

It is very rare where a player gets traded at the trade deadline and starts the following season as the team’s new captain, especially for a 25 year old player.  Although the Leafs were eager to name a new captain after going without one the previous season, Phaneuf was not deserving of the title at that point in time. Sure he is loud and plays music in the dressing room, but he clearly had problems with some teammates in Calgary, including their captain Jerome Iginla. Naming a new captain so quickly that obviously had problems with his old team was not the best choice.

Offensively Phaneuf has been almost nonexistent as the Leaf’s 4th highest scoring defenseman behind Kaberle, Schenn, and Komisarek.  Although he has only played in 21 of the team’s games, his 1 goal and 6 assists is unacceptable. Phaneuf started the season on the top power play, but lost that spot due to injury. When he gets a chance to shoot, the puck can either be seen 5 feet over the net or 5 feet wide. Phaneuf couldn’t score on a soccer net, let alone a hockey net.

Defensively he could be even worse, he is -4 which is expected from a player on a terrible team, but is still 6th amongst the team’s defensemen. Phaneuf is in a distant 6th with only 33 blocked shots this season.  Putting this in perspective, Beauchemin is leading the team with 90 and second year European defenseman Carl Gunnarsson has 52.  Phaneuf’s unwillingness to sacrifice his body was highlighted against the Blue Jackets, when he waved his stick at Rick Nash as he scored the eventual game winning goal in a 3-2 Jackets win.  He has also been a key player on the Leafs terrible penalty kill. He is not only awful in the defensive zone, but always seems to pinch and miss leaving his defence partner high and dry with 2 on 1s and 3 on 1s.

Finally, the main reason Phaneuf has had success in the past was his physicality. Phaneuf is currently 4th on the team in hits with 50 total or just over 2.3 hits per game.  2.3 hits per game is not terrible, but many of his hits are small pushes, unlike his first couple seasons in the NHL where most of his hits were bone crushing.  If he is not hitting players hard there is no fear of going into the corners against him or coming down the middle when he is on the ice.  Komisarek and Schenn have both proven to be bigger hitters than Phaneuf this season delivering punishing blows to opposing forwards. In addition to Phaneuf not hitting, he refuses to fight anyone.  Even players that he would easily handle like Nick Foligno of the Senators, who dropped his gloves to fight with Phaneuf before the Leaf’s captain refused to fight.  Phaneuf has become soft on the Leafs fans.

What happened?  Is Ron Wilson to blame for Phaneuf’s poor play?  Is it Burke’s fault for giving him so much security in a huge contract?  Has Phaneuf lost the passion to play because of his new found wealth?  Or has the team put too much pressure on him to stay out of the box and score as the captain that he has not been able to play his game?

Whatever the reason, Ron Wilson has to sit down with the 25 year old captain and get him back to his former self.  If that means benching, do it.  If that means scratching, do it.  If that means stripping him of his captaincy, do it. The Leaf’s need him to show up and play because Kaberle can’t provide the team with that kind of grit and Beauchemin and Komisarek don’t have the raw talent that Phaneuf does.  With Dion locked up long term he has to turn it around.