Dion Phaneuf: Were Expectations Set Too High In Toronto?
At 6’3” and around 200 pounds at the time he was drafted, Phaneuf was known as a physical defenseman that was savvy at both ends of the ice. Phaneuf was so well thought of that he drew comparisons to the likes of legendary NHL defenseman, Scott Stevens.
After playing out his Junior years with the Red Deer Rebels, Phaneuf entered the NHL under a ton of hype and great expectations.
To Dion’s credit, he did not disappoint in his first season with Calgary (2005-06), setting a Flames record for most goals by a first-year defenceman (20) and was named a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy as top rookie.
Phaneuf not only impressed with his 20 goal, 29 assist rookie season, he also made his mark as a big hitting/tough defender, laying out more his his share of opposing forwards and sending a message that he was a force to be reckoned with engaging in several memorable fights.
To say the Flames were happy was an understatement.
Phaneuf would follow his rookie season up with another great season (2006-07), collecting 17 goals and 33 assists for a total of 50 points, culminating in his first selection to the NHL’s All-Star game.
Dion would follow that season up with his second All-Star selection in 2007-08, collecting 17 goals and setting career-highs in assists (43), points (60), penalty minutes (182) and plus/minus (plus-12).
Phaneuf would receive Norris Trophy consideration for his efforts, but did not win the coveted trophy rewarded to the games best defenseman (Nicklas Lidstrom won it).
Needless to say, with two All-Star caliber seasons on his belt and a reputation as a heavy-hitting/tough defenseman, the Calgary Flames looked to have found their franchise defenseman and future leader.
The 2008-09 season saw Phaneuf post 11 goals and 36 assists for a total of 47 points. Hardly bad numbers, but when you factor in Dion’s Plus/Minus rating of minus-11 and a penalty minutes total that dipped from 182 to 100, people anointed Phaneuf with his first “bad season”.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Obviously, a 47-point season is pretty good for any defenseman, but for Phaneuf, it was a disappointment.
Dion followed that season up with another soft offensive season, registering 10 goals and 12 assists (22 points) through 55 games with the Flames.
With rumors circulating that the Flames were unhappy with Dion both on and off the ice, then Flames general manager, Darryl Sutter, did what Flames fans would have thought was unthinkable just two seasons prior when, On January 31, 2010, Sutter picked up the phone and struck a deal with Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Brian Burke, dealing Phaneuf, along with Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie to the Toronto Maple Leafs exchange for Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Myers.
Upon his arrival in Toronto, the story goes that Phaneuf walked into the dressing room, made his way to the stereo, took control of the playlist and cranked up the tunes.
This simple act was said to have an immediate impact on the dressing room and served notice to everyone in the room that this was now Phaneuf’s team.
Phaneuf would make his debut with the Maple Leafs two nights later against the New Jersey Devils, where he led the Leafs in icetime, made a couple of big hits and had a spirited fight. Phaneuf would earn second star honors for his efforts and, in the process, captured the imagination of Toronto fans from coast-to-coast as to what Phaneuf might be capable of. The Majority really felt the sky was the limit!
Phaneuf would finish the season with 2 goals and 8 assists (10 points) with Toronto, bringing his season (split between Calgary and Toronto) total to 32 points.
The Maple Leafs played that season without a Captain. Rumors quickly started after the 2009-10 season that Phaneuf would be awarded the Captaincy.
Then head coach of the Maple Leafs, Ron Wilson, more than hinted at this when asked about the possibility of Dion becoming captain of the Maple Leafs that summer, Wilson responded by saying— “I think most of the players right now look at Dion as the leader of our team,” Wilson said of the defenseman who had only played 26 games as a Leaf. “He’s vocal. He plays aggressive. He cares about his teammates and he’s really highly involved in the community already in two months. So more than likely (he’ll be named captain). We wanted to let everything play out over time, let him get comfortable here, let him get to know everybody, everybody get to know him. But right now I’d be perfectly comfortable with Dion as the captain of the team.”
While many felt Phaneuf struggled in his first 26 games with the Maple Leafs and that he was not ready to assume the role of captain in what many perceive as the games toughest/most demanding market, Dion was named the 18th captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs on June 14, 2010.
Fast forward to October, 2011 and management looked to be golden in their decision to select Dion as captain.
With his team sitting atop the Northeast Division and just three points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for top spot in the Eastern Conference standings, former Maple Leafs head coach, Ron Wilson, gave Phaneuf a shot in the arm with an endorsement that had many in NHL circles questioning Wilson’s sanity and ability to evaluate talent.
“Personally I think by a country mile he’s the best defenseman in the league. It’s not even close right now,” Wilson said in a media conference following a 4-3 win over the Penguins that night. “I think he’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s comfortable being the captain, he’s healthy and I think without taking away from his play, the way Carl Gunnarsson’s played has made Dion’s job a lot easier. It’s just freed up Dion to play as best as I’ve ever seen him.”
Calling Dion “the best defenseman in the league” was a kind gesture, but few agreed with Wilson.
Sure, at the time of Wilson’s statement, Phaneuf led his team in assists (nine), plus/minus (+7) and time on ice per game (26:34) and was third among all NHL defensemen in points (11). Trouble was, we were only a handful of games into the season— hardly enough of a timeline to be making those types of statements.
Fact is, as good as Dion was playing (and we will concede, he was playing well at the time) Phaneuf was still only a shadow of the player that he was during his first three seasons with the Calgary Flames and most certainly not the best defenseman in the NHL!
Looking back, maybe this is where the bottom started to fall out from Phaneuf?
Through no doing of his own, that one reckless statement from Wilson had many fans looking for any excuse to prove Wilson wrong and, in some respect, put a ton of pressure on the Leafs captain to live up to his coaches assessment.
What Wilson said was unfair, untrue and, in a market like Toronto, caused many fans and the haters, alike, to put an even larger microscope on Phaneuf’s game.
Just two months later (December 31st, 2013), the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they had signed Phaneuf to a seven-year contract extension worth $49 million US that would begin the next season.
At the tme of the deal, The Maple Leafs owned a record of 125-104-32 with Phaneuf in the lineup. For his part, Phaneuf led all Maple Leafs in ice time, averaging 24 minutes 21 seconds, owned a team-best plus-13 rating, was second in scoring to Cody Franson (20 points) among Toronto defensemen with 15 points on four goals and 11 assists. He also ranked second in hits (102) and blocked shots (76), and third in penalty minutes.
Truth be told, Phaneuf was the Maple Leafs best defenseman, but few felt he was worth $49 million over seven years. That said, how could anyone fault Dion for signing with a team that clearly believed in him, looked to be on the rise and had given him the captaincy? And, if not Phaneuf, who could the Maple Leafs possibly count on to assume Phaneuf’s minutes/role?
The answer was clear— despite cries from much of the fan-base, the Maple Leafs needed Phaneuf and, quite frankly, Phaneuf needed the Leafs. In Hindsight, the Maple Leafs grossly overpaid for Dion’s services, but an argument can be made that, under the circumstances, the Maple Leafs had to overpay for Dion or risk losing him.
In many ways, the contract extension was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t and the man who signed Phaneuf to that contract (former Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis) felt the chance of losing Phaneuf was not worth it, so he overpaid to keep his captain in the fold.
The Maple Leafs would make the playoffs that season (2012-13) but would fail to make it past the first round, bowing out to the Boston Bruins in seven games. For his part, Phaneuf played decently during the playoffs, scoring one goal and tallying three assists.
Phaneuf would register eight goals, 23 assist and a plus-3 rating in his first full season of his new contract. To say this was a disappointment would be an understatement. Given the enormity of Phaneuf’s newly signed contract, fans and management alike were expecting big things from their captain. Instead, they were “rewarded” with another very average season.
When you are paying a player top money, the expectation is that you will be rewarded with a top effort/numbers. Few, if any, of the experts felt Dion gave a gold standard effort that season, which resulted in more than a few fans and hockey pundits taking shots at Phaneuf for his lackluster play.
Of course, it should be noted that, while Phaneuf’s play was being questioned, so was his entire teams.
From management, to the coaching staff, to the players, nobody was without a measure of scrutiny within the Maple Leafs organization.
After what can only be described as a disappointing season, it was very clear that, unless the Maple Leafs were able to rebound, heads were gonna roll.
Phaneuf and his teammates followed up that disappointing season with another dud, registering a 30-44-3-5 record, culminating in the firing of head coach Randy Carlyle during the season and the trading of star forward Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the off-season.
With his team at an all-time low and Phaneuf’s role with the team clearly in jeopardy, the Maple Leafs made a huge splash in the off-season, bringing in coaching legend Mike Babcock to lead the team.
Babcock would be given the task of helping to rebuild the Maple Leafs from the ground up and building up some of his veteran players.
Included in that building up of players would be Phaneuf.
With his trade value at an all-time low, it was very clear that, despite wanting to trade Dion, the Maple Leafs would not be able to find a trading partner. That said, if Babcock could help Phaneuf turn his career around, perhaps general manager Lou Lamoriello could find a team with which to do business with.
While Babcock is not a miracle maker, he afforded Phaneuf every opportunity to make strides with his game and, with Babcock seemingly putting Phaneuf in situations he could succeed in and by limiting his icetime, the surefire Hall of Fame coach managed to build Phaneuf up enough that, after parts of seven seasons with Toronto, Phaneuf was dealt to the Ottawa Senators on February 9th, 2016.
The blockbuster nine-player trade saw Phaneuf and prospects Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Ruppert and Cody Donaghey sent to the Senators in exchange for Jared Cowan, Colin Greening, Milan Michalek prospect Tobias Lindberg and Ottawa’s second round draft pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
The trade caught many in NHL circles by surprise and, rightly or wrongly, caused many Maple Leaf fans to cheer loud and proud!
Not only had the Maple Leafs rid themselves of a player that many fans had made their whipping-boy for the better part of seven seasons, they had also opened up a good chunk of cap space as Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello did not retain so much as a penny of Phaneuf’s salary/contract.
Since the trade, many Leaf fans have been asking— did Dion get a fair shake here in Toronto?
It’s a question that’s not easily answered, but we will try to make sense of it.
First, to be fair, the expectations on Dion from day one of the trade were unfair. Let’s remember, he came to Toronto on a down trend and the Maple Leaf management (mainly Brian Burke and Ron Wilson) instantly put enormous pressure on the young defenseman.
Further, while Phaneuf was capable of playing as a first line defenseman, it became painfully obvious that he was overwhelmed by the opposition on many nights. In a perfect world, Dion would have found himself demoted to the second defense pairing, but with no player close to his talent level on the roster and with that huge contract looming large, it was impossible for Dion to be demoted into what many felt would be a role he could excel in.
Lastly, as much as we would all like to think there was enough talent on the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs on more than one occasion during Dion’s career as a Maple Leaf, the reality is, there wasn’t. Dion had few opportunities, if any, to play with another defenseman of his caliber and, as a result, he was called upon to do too much on a weak team.
Could Dion have performed better?
Arguably, yes. But it should be noted that, in the minds of many fans, while Dion became known for his defensive gaffs and slowed skating, his effort was never in question— especially by Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who recently praised Dion for his spirited play and dedication to the gym and his teammates.
Was Dion given a fair shake in Toronto? Probably not. One things for sure— if you asked 20 people about Dion, you’d probably get 20 different answers.
In the end I think both sides would agree on one thing— Both Dion and the Toronto Maple Leafs are likely happy to have parted ways and, in all likelihood, both sides will be more successful without each other.
So, tonight, when Dion steps on the ice at the ACC for the first time since being traded, let’s remember what the organization put him through— the lofty expectations, the often questionable defense pairings he endured, the horrible rosters he had to play with and perhaps an ill-advised awarding of the captaincy.
Ask yourself this— under the same set of circumstances, how many NHL defensemen would have exceeded the expectations that Dion attempted to measure up to?
Who do you blame for Dion’s struggles in Toronto?