SUNRISE, FLA - Only one player in the National Hockey League averages more than the 33 nightly shifts Dion Phaneuf consumes for the Maple Leafs. No player on the Toronto roster shoulders more responsibility than the 27-year-old captain, save for the two goaltenders.
"I want to do whatever I can to help our team win," Phaneuf told TSN.ca in conversation recently, "whether that's shutting down other top lines, producing on the power play, producing 5-on-5, making a big hit, whatever way I can help contribute to help our team win I want to do that."
The Leafs boast a surprising 9-6-0 mark after 15 games, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference. And while the future of Phil Kessel in Toronto has dominated conversation in recent weeks, perhaps more important for Leafs brass to consider is the prospects for Phaneuf long-term. Like Kessel, Phaneuf is an unrestricted free agent following next season. Because he plays a far more consuming role, his cost to the organization may be greater than the 25-year-old sniper. Asked about his future in Toronto, Phaneuf stressed the present.
"Right now I'm not focusing on [what happens] past my contract, but I definitely want to be here for the long-term. You look at the success the Marlies had with the young guys there and the way that we're playing here now. We're taking steps as a team and taking steps in the right direction as a team. I want to be a part of that when we're having success."
Phaneuf is often judged on goals, point production and big hits, but his most important duty - by far - is shutting down opposing top lines. He logs heavy minutes (as he always has) in the shutdown role - 26:51 per game, fifth most on average in the NHL - but because he's tasked with challenging the likes of Thomas Vanek, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, the minutes he assumes are also of the most taxing variety.
"My role to be the shutdown guy, for me I take pride in it," he said. "I want to be the guy that other teams don't like to play against and that is tough to play against. When you start in the league you're not playing against the top lines night in and night out. As you grow as a player you start to do that. Now I've been around for a while and you take pride in being that guy that other teams don't like to play against."
Often untamed in his defensive jaunts as a younger player - most notably in Calgary, but also at points early in his Toronto tenure - Phaneuf has gradually learned to do more by doing less. Former Leaf coach Ron Wilson once noted that as bench boss in San Jose, he would instruct his Sharks to take advantage of the then-rambunctious Flames defender, knowing full well that Phaneuf would chase the big hit and leave himself woefully out of position. That aspect of his game has diminished in time. He concedes that he's become a better defender with experience, learning the finer intricacies of the position, active use of the stick for example.
While far from a perfect defender, Phaneuf has performed effectively in the role of late. In eight games this month he has been on the ice for only three goals against at even-strength, despite logging nearly 20 minutes per game in such scenarios. A highly active coach, Randy Carlyle employs Phaneuf in nearly every critical defensive zone face off. Often, he'll trot his top defender out there strictly for such situations before calling for an immediate change if and when the Leafs are able to clear the zone.
Like Wilson, Carlyle views Phaneuf as a safety valve of sorts on an inexperienced Toronto defence. Early in the year, he teamed Phaneuf with 27-year-old rookie Mike Kostka, most recently shuffling another first-year defender, Korbinian Holzer, into a role on the top pairing.
But while his responsibilities remain immense - he is also the first option on the Leaf penalty kill and power play - Carlyle has taken steps recently to ease the burden on Phaneuf, who had been overworked to the tune of 28 minutes per game in January. At that point early in the year, it was apparent that Carlyle had not struck a comfort zone with his defence and was relying heavily on Phaneuf as a result. Lately, he's found balance and spread the minutes around evenly among six defenders. On Saturday against Ottawa, Phaneuf again led the Leafs in ice-time, but did so at 24 minutes for the third time in four games.
Because his primary function is to be effective defensively, Phaneuf's offensive production has the tendency to go hot and cold. A 10-game pointless drought to begin the year has been replaced recently with a four-game point streak, to the tune of two goals and three assists.
"I'd definitely take less numbers personally to have a better record team-wise," he said. "That's the bottom line. Team success is all that matters these days for me. I want to do whatever I can to help the team succeed."
Replacing the future offensive production of Kessel would be one thing, but the better question is where the Leafs would turn to replace the hefty responsibilities Phaneuf holds on defence? Morgan Rielly might evolve into such an option long-term, but that's far from a sure thing, especially in the early stages of his career. Phaneuf would almost certainly require a pay cut - he earns $6.5 million this season - perhaps something to the tune of the $5 million per season that Alex Edler, the Canucks top defender, recently signed for in Vancouver. The Leafs won't really need to make a decision on Phaneuf (or Kessel) until next summer or even next season. If they opted to move in a different direction, they could trade one or both and hope to benefit from whatever assets they may receive.