Despite all the criticism the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ captain endures, Dion Phaneuf has easily been the team’s best player through the first four games of the season.
Toronto’s defensemen have struggled mightily, with most of the back-end having difficulty moving the puck out of their own zone on a consistent basis. The captain is the only player who is able to claim he’s played solid defensively in each game to begin the year.
Unlike when he first arrived in Toronto, Phaneuf is no longer trying to check opposing players through the boards. He’s picking and choosing his spots when it comes to delivering the game-breaking hits he’s known for, and it’s led to Phaneuf playing a better positional style of defense. He’s still being physical with the opposition but instead of trying to take heads off, his stick-checking ability has been on full display.
Against the Colorado Avalanche’s impressive group of young forwards, Phaneuf was able to contain the speed of faster skaters like Matt Duchene. The Maple Leafs’ defensemen would stand tall against the oncoming rush by routinely knocking the puck off their stick and quickly making an outlet pass to a teammate. The Phaneuf-of-old would too often attempt to drop the oncoming forward with an impactful check, leaving the captain out of position more times than not.
Phaneuf has also limited his pinching in the offensive zone as he’s no longer taking high-risk chances at either end of the ice.
Unfortunately for the captain, his consistent play has been met by inconsistent play from the rest of the team’s defensemen.
Jake Gardiner appears to have lost the confidence he had when he played against the Boston Bruins in last spring’s playoff series. Gardiner has been shaky in his own zone, turning the puck over regularly by trying to move it too quickly, resulting in tape-to-tape passes that end up on the opposition’s stick. The crispness of his passes that he has shown in the past is nowhere to be seen so far.
Cody Franson missed the majority of the preseason after holding out with a contract dispute and looks like a player that needs a few more games to work off the summer rust. Paul Ranger is playing in the NHL for the first time since the 2009-10 season and looks like a player who hasn’t been able to adjust to the speed of the league yet. Franson and Ranger will likely see their play improve as the season progresses, as it looks more like a timing issue than talent issue for the two.
Morgan Rielly couldn’t have started his NHL career any worse as it seemed the moment the puck dropped in his first pro game, the rookie was already a minus-two in the box score. He was able to bounce back with a strong showing against Colorado as it appeared nerves played a factor in his first NHL contest.
Even Carl Gunnarsson has struggled, as the normally consistent partner to Phaneuf took two bad penalties against the Avalanche including one with less than 10 minutes remaining and the Leafs down by a goal.
With the majority of the defensive group struggling for the Maple Leafs, Phaneuf has been the anchor on the back-end the franchise has hoped he’d be. A better focus to defensive positioning and minimizing his risk taking by holding back on big hits and not attempting to do too much offensively, has led to Phaneuf having a strong start to the 2013-14 season.
Toronto management has no doubt taken notice of Phaneuf’s play, as with the captain being in a contract year, he’ll be looking to sign a significant extension. Given the Leafs recently gave Kessel $8 million per season over the next eight years, if Phaneuf is able to continue his current level of play, General Manager Dave Nonis may be forced to open up the wallet to give Phaneuf a similar contract.
Only the captain’s play will dictate how much the Maple Leafs will offer him in an extension, however, Phaneuf is off to a good start in negotiations.