He does not have the goals or production of either Nazem Kadri
or Phil Kessel
, but Dion Phaneuf
may just be the Leafs' most important player this season.
Here's the case why:
Phaneuf not only logs the most minutes on the team – 26 per game, four more than anyone one else – and sixth most on average in the NHL, but the difficulty of his minutes is also unquestionably the highest. As the Leafs primary shutdown defender, the majority of his 32 nightly shifts come against opposing top lines, his primary responsibility simply slowing their production as effectively as possible. In his team's most recent game against Carolina, Phaneuf logged a team-high of nearly 25 minutes, 16 of which he spent at even-strength matched up against the Hurricanes' lethal top unit of Eric Staal
, Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty
. While Staal scored shorthanded on a breakaway and Semin on the man-advantage, the trio was held off the scoresheet five-on-five, a credit to Phaneuf and his defensive partner Carl Gunnarsson
With the meticulous Randy Carlyle behind the bench, Phaneuf starts most of his shifts in the defensive zone and is apt to spend considerable chunks defending in the most physically taxing of areas, often against talents like Staal. Outside of the goaltender, there is no role that demands more on a consistent basis.
In addition to his importance at even-strength, Phaneuf also chews up leading minutes on the Leafs sixth-ranked penalty kill – about three minutes over average – and on the man-advantage, where he's tallied 12 points, second only to Kessel.
Hefty defensive responsibilities aside, Phaneuf is also expected to provide offence from the back-end, which he's done with increasing efficiency this year. He now sits seventh in scoring among all NHL defenders with 21 points – 20 of which have come in the past 24 games – his seven goals bested only by Canadiens star P.K. Subban
. In fact, of the seven he has scored, four have been of the game-tying variety, including Thursday's marker in a 6-3 victory against the Hurricanes, and one an overtime winner.
Phaneuf has also performed on many nights with inexperienced defensive partners, be it Mike Kostka
at the outset this season or Korbinian Holzer
for an extended stretch after that. Only recently has Gunnarsson, a steady veteran, joined his side on the top pairing.
Starting goaltender James Reimer
was lost to injury for two weeks and the Leafs managed to get by with Ben Scrivens
standing in his place. Joffrey Lupul
was lost for about two months and the offence rarely suffered. But remove Phaneuf from the roster for any stretch at all and the organization would have no sufficient answer to replace him. Morgan Rielly
may assume those duties one day, but not anytime soon.
Phaneuf has one year remaining on his contract following this season. Considering his array of responsibilities, the difficulty of his role and the shortage of number one defencemen typically available – Ryan Suter
is a rare case – he would prove difficult for the Leafs to let go. Seemingly refining his overall game with age, top defenders of his caliber are just too difficult to find. It's for exactly that reason that Philadelphia leveled a monstrous 14-year offer to Shea Weber
, only to see Nashville match, and why Portland Winterhawks stud Seth Jones
is projected to go first overall in the upcoming NHL draft.
"Without him in the lineup this year, our team certainly is not anywhere close to where we are right now," Lupul said, "and everyone in the locker room knows that."