There is no question that the Leafs have been entertaining squad through the now almost completed first half of the 2011-’12 NHL season. They banked a lot of important points in the standings early in the season—points that should come in handy down the road if they aspire to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.
And there is no doubt that two of the guys who have been largely responsible for the “turnaround” in Leaf fortunes this season are Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel.
Yet, I have a question today for those who visit here and who follow the Leaf fortunes closely: For all the excitement generated by the play of these aforementioned key Maple Leafs—and recognizing the kudos they have received for their largely stellar play this season—are we missing something?
What I mean is there is another side to their play, I think. Let me give an example. About two weeks or so into the current season, Leaf coach Ron Wilson declared something along the lines of…”Phaneuf is the best defenseman in the league right now, and it’s not even close…”. Now, hyperbole is not uncommon among professional coaches in any sport, particularly if they want to pump up their team or help to hype certain individual players for a major award and such things. (Usually this occurs of course when a player is not on their way to an arbitration hearing…)
While ever-guarded with the local media in Toronto, Wilson is indeed prone to at least the occasional such cheer-leading outburst. We all recall when, during pre-season in the fall of 2010, he declared the Leaf power-play to be “scary good”. Now, the power play has been many things during Wilson’s tenure here, but “scary good” it has rarely been.
In fairness, Phaneuf was playing very well at the time of Wilson's comment, and even Dion's detractors would have been hard-pressed to not see that he was playing well at both ends of the ice. But as the season has worn on, I just sense that Phaneuf—who often plays 25 and more minutes a night on a very young Leaf rearguard group— is not commanding the ice as he was earlier on. His mistakes seem more frequent and he is not a huge offensive threat most nights. He will make the big hit on occasion, yes, and that may be enough to make him a somewhat feared guy amongst opposing NHL forwards. But I’d be hard-pressed to say he is “the best” in the league these days, or even necessarily in the top ten of NHL defensemen.
Phaneuf is a minus 1 on the season. The key guy who went the other way in the huge deal with the Flames, Ian White (now with the Wings), is plus 25 thus far. White plays on a better team, clearly, and plus/minus is but one gauge of a player’s effectiveness, but it does tell a bit of a story.
As for Kessel, I know we all love his dashing style, and how he and Lupul have lit things up this season. Kessel is a game-breaker, one of the most dangerous guys with the puck in the game at the moment. He plays an up-tempo game, to be sure and can make plays at high speed that make you wonder how he just did that.
But while I’m not a numbers guy, for an elite winger with 43 points already this season, shouldn’t he be better than a plus 1 on the year? It seems to me that more and more lately, as he makes his eye-popping rushes, just as often as he makes a nice play that turns into something, he is losing the puck at the other team’s blueline—thus creating an odd man rush going the other way.
This is not to nitpick about two guys who seem to be giving everything they have for the Leafs. I just wonder if some of you are seeing what I’m seeing.
If not, fair enough. If so, is it an issue, or doesn’t it matter in the broader context of what both guys, Kessel and Phaneuf, are bringing to the table most nights?