Toronto Maple Leafs: No Signs of Maturity in Dion Phaneuf


The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf has shown no real signs of maturing over ten seasons in the NHL

How old is Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf? The answer is simple: he’s 30 years old.

For some reason, however, a majority of people can’t seem to accept this basic fact. When I mention it, they snipe back, “He can’t be that old. He’s been in the NHL for a long time – like forever.”

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Forever is indeed a long time and I’m not quite sure any player has ever been in the NHL that long (in fact, I would put money on it though the closest might be Jaromir Jagr right now), but it remains true: Dion Phaneuf is a ten-year veteran of the NHL. He joined the league at the tender age of 20 with the Calgary Flames and now captains the NHL’s most important team, the Leafs, at the ripe old age of 30 – a role Phaneuf first assumed when he was just 25 years old!

That’s crazy, no?

No, it isn’t that crazy. Phaneuf came to Toronto as a young defenceman with four seasons of 47 points or higher under his belt. Those are some impressive numbers and he instantly became the best defenceman on the team. He perfectly encapsulated the team’s ideal player at the time: big, tough, angry and talented. I was actually surprised they waited the five months to give him the captaincy.

Apr 8, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Jackets won 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, things change over time and if those lofty days in Calgary represent the peak of Phaneuf’s career, then he’s quickly come crashing back down to earth as a member of the Leafs. He’s no longer the same player we first saw burst into action in 2005-2006 and rack up 49 points (20 goals, 29 assists) to finish behind Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby for rookie of the year.

Phaneuf’s ten-season career is almost perfectly divided between his time in Calgary and Toronto. In five seasons with the Frames, he amassed a record of 228 points (75 goals, 153 assists), 522 penalty minutes and 1,825 total shot attempts across 378 games. As a Leaf, he’s put up a total of 172 points (42 goals, 130 assists), 531 penalty minutes and 1,892 shot attempts over six seasons (or 372 games).

Having said this, there are some key differences that must be acknowledged. You may have noticed a drop in goal production between the two teams. This parallels a drop in shooting percentage from 6.5 to 4.9. Phaneuf has also seen slightly less ice time in Toronto, dropping from 24:48 minutes per game to 24:41, but this gap actually widens quite significantly if you remove his rookie season from consideration. Finally, there are his conventional defensive numbers to consider: he went from a healthy plus-19 in Calgary to an unhealthy minus-26 in Toronto.

Jan 15, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) is checked on the boards by San Jose Sharks right wing Melker Karlsson (68) during the third period at SAP Center at San Jose. Sharks won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

What makes the case of Phaneuf so interesting is not the fact he’s younger than most people think. It’s how his development as a player has worked in reverse. Over time, his numbers have generally regressed, not improved. (The degree of this regression is open to some debate, however.)

Normally, a player would either be entering or playing in his prime at the age of 30. This isn’t the case for Phaneuf, and it’s a problem for the Leafs because they’ve tapped him with a leadership role that he can’t really fulfill. You don’t want a guy who can’t keep his own performance in check or consistent over time providing guidance to the team’s young, impressionable defence corps.

It may be that Phaneuf benefited from the presence of Robyn Regehr on the blue line during those hearty days in Calgary, but that’s no longer the case and it alarms me.

I’m not surprised by his age; it’s the lack of maturity that grabs my attention.

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