To the surprise of those outside the Greater Toronto Area, the Maple Leafs are off to a roaring start this season, led by the play of captain Dion Phaneuf. On the surface, he has posted 2 goals and 9 assists, with his 11 points tying him for 3rd in the NHL among blueliners. Digging deeper, he is leading all defenseman (min. 10 GP) with a Corsi Rel rating of 38.4, with Brent Burns and Andrej Sekera the only two players even close to him. Phaneuf has been a big fantasy disappointment since his monster 2007-08 campaign, so let’s take a look and see if these easy season results are for real.
Last year, his first full season with the Leafs, Phaneuf wasn’t anything special, posting 30 points and a -2 rating in 66 games, averaging 0.78 points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time (T-71st among defenceman). This season he has doubled his offensive output, recording points at a pace of 1.54 per 60 minutes (10th). The story is the same on the power play, as he has improved from 2.69 per 60 minutes (75th) to 5.03 (16th).
11 games into the season, this screams small sample size, but there are some legitimate reasons for optimism. First of all, the Leafs as a whole appear to be an improved team. Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly are very solid players when healthy, James Reimer has proven himself to be a competent NHL netminder, and John-Michael Liles has been an excellent addition, especially with the man advantage. So what does this mean for Phaneuf’s numbers?
Compared to last season, Phaneuf is spending almost a minute less per game playing at even strength, and instead replacing that time with power play minutes, always a good thing, especially on a stronger Leafs powerplay. He has also benefited from playing against weaker competition on the powerplay, with his PP QoC of -.623 a huge benefit compared to his .835 mark last season.
It’s at even strength though where Phaneuf has really been the beneficiary of other players. Last season, he lined up primarily with Francois Beauchemin and Keith Aulie. This year he has been paired with Carl Gunnarsson, a drastic improvement. This better partner, along with the forwards he has been matched up with, has lead to a QualTeam number of .365, vs. -.007 last year.
This brings us to probably my favourite stat, Ozone%. Phaneuf has only seen a small increase in his Ozone% at even strength, from 49.4% to 52.6%, and the team is actually losing more draws when he is on the ice. This means that his offensive numbers aren’t artificially inflated by a large percentage of offensive draws, which would be impossible to keep up over the course of the season, especially for a #1 defenceman like Phaneuf. To put that in perspective, last season Anton Babchuk led all NHL defenceman (min. 50 GP) at 61.9%, and the top 30 isn’t exactly packed with guys who are intimidating presences in their own zone.
On the other hand, playing with quality teammates is a factor that can be controlled, barring injury. Will McGuire’s Monster score 82 points as his current pace dictates? No, of course not. But a top 10 finish in scoring isn’t out of the question, and when you combine that with 80-100 PIMS and a decent +/- rating, that makes for a very solid fantasy option.