Custom Search

A quick question about Kessel and Phaneuf

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?


  1. I think what we are seeing is something we have all said at one time or another. That is while the leafs are deep in third, fourth line guys and even guys who are tweeners, not quite good enough to be called second line guys but a little too good to be third line guys they really have a lack of high end talent.

    Personally I think Phanuef has too much responsibility. He is playing too many minutes of tough hockey every night. He would be more effective I think at around 21-22 minutes a night rather than the 26 he plays right now. Less is more I think. The same thing applies to Kessel. His play has been excellent this year but I do think he is wearing down. With the lack of a consistent second line scoring threat, Kessel is playing too much against the other teams shut down guys. I haven't seen that explosive speed he showed early in the year very much in December. I think the same thing applies to Kessel as it does to Phaneuf. That being the Leafs rely to much on them to carry the load, simply because they don't have anyone else capable of doing it.

    This is not a to blame Phanuef and Kessel, they are having very good years. I just think they need help.

  2. You've outlined the challenge very well, Wilbur. Like you, I'm not picking on Kessel or Phaneuf. I just sense they haven't been quite able to maintain their earlier pace and who can blame them? It's hard for any athlete, even in the midst of a big-time season, to be really strong every single night, or play mistake-free hockey. They need help, as you mention. Thanks as always for the post.

  3. the leafs are exciting to watch, but often the plays that are generated are very risky, leaving the back-end poorly-covered.
    the power-play is much improved BUT... it's a bit predictable... 'pass puck around until kessel is in the perfect position, then allow him to unload.'
    so, i think the numbers (+/-) reflect the results of wilson's coaching style, more than it does the skillset of the individual players.

  4. Thanks Alex C....the Leafs are exciting, but a bit high-risk, for sure. The power-play has had its moments. Most teams seem to go through that- a few games where they connect, then they hit hit a dry spell where they can't seem to buy a power-play goal.

    As for the plus/minus, you may be right. While there are certainly valid reasons why those numbers aren't better for both guys, I guess I'd still like them both to be better in that department.

  5. To me Kessel seems a bit worn out again, and hasn't played 200 feet in, oh, 15 games or so. Phaneuf is just joining the forwards too often and teams have gotten used to it, and press for turnovers more when he's on the ice. Putting Gardiner on he ice with him is like mixing ammonia and bleach, never good. Neither has the greatest hockey sense on those "I'm a forward now!" plays (which make up 50-80% of Phaneuf's game) and other teams can take it in stride. One wold like to see either Phaneuf or Kessel be able to tilt the ice in our favour when they are on the ice, like many other top players can.

  6. Susan A.C....I'm seeing the same thing with Kessel. He's played a lot of hockey already this season. And as Wilbur also noted, Phaneuf may be playing too many minutes. Wilson wants to activate his defensemen but while fun to watch, it comes with some obvious risk. Great post. Thanks Susan.

  7. How's this for Vintage Leaf Memory?

    I have been a Leaf fan for over 40 years.

    Tonight in Winnipeg, I see them live for the first time in my life.

  8. This is genuinely great to hear. Being a Leaf fan and and having the opportunity to see your team in live action after all these years. It will indeed be a vintage memory. Enjoy, DP....and share your thoughts afterwards!

  9. Every player has some highs and lows throughout the season, here's hoping dion and kess can regain the form they had at the beginning of the season

  10. I agree Jack, players have natural ups and downs in any season. We'll see how Phil and Dion respond when the games get tighter in the second half...