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Bruins looking to survive without Chara; could the Maple Leafs do the same without Phaneuf?

Few would argue that the Bruins have not been the class of the Eastern Conference for the past several years. They have “only” one Cup on their recent resume, but they have been right there as a serious contender year in and year out.

Even fewer would argue that the lynchpin—the guy who makes the Bruins go—has been stalwart defenseman Zdeno Chara. I don’t need to list the Bruin captain’s attributes here. But along with Tim Thomas, he was a crucial factor in the Cup victory, and has been a true shutdown defenseman for ages on the B’s blueline.

This week, Chara suffered an injury that will take him out of the Boston lineup until sometime in December. The Bruins will no doubt survive (they certainly did against the Leafs Saturday night at the ACC), but not without some off nights along the way.  They have a young Doug Hamilton emerging as a minute-eating rearguard and Seidenberg, Krug and McQuaid remain reliable defensemen. But while guys may step up their game, it’s pretty much impossible to really replace a player like Chara. There just isn’t anyone out there quite like him.

This got me thinking about a column a wrote here almost a year ago.  I wondered aloud who the one player was that the Leafs could not do without, and my conclusion, as I recall, was that it was our own captain, Dion Phaneuf.

I saw Phaneuf as someone who logged huge minutes, played against the other team’s top line every night and generally gave his best effort most nights. Given a generally uncertain defense brigade, and a then untested rookie in Morgan Rielly, he seemed, to me at least, to be indispensible.

Arguably, other Leafs like Kessel and Bernier could certainly have been in that discussion, but Phaneuf struck me as the guy we really could not replace for any length of time.

Fast forward to the 2014-’15 season and I now wonder: are we—and the Maple Leafs—still in the same boat? Is Phaneuf still our (arguably) most indispensible player?

I’m sure the debate will continue in Leafworld as to whether Phaneuf is the impact player people like me claimed he was. Is a true top-pairing guy? Is he a leader? Is his play on the decline, or soon to be?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but while Phaneuf remains an important figure in the Leaf lineup and along our back line, I am asking myself if we are on the cusp on a new leaf being turned, as it were, on the Maple Leaf blueline.

Robidas is coming off serious injuries, and at 37, is unlikely to be a long-term contributor for Toronto.  He may help this year and/or next, but we’ll see. After that, though, things get kind of interesting.

Most Leaf supporters would contend that Rielly has ‘star’ written all over him. Right now his ceiling looks very, very high. Will he become an all-around defenseman who consistently tilts the play in his side’s favour?  Maybe.

Gardiner remains a puzzle (we saw the concerning aspects in the third period Saturday night against the Bruins):  a talented guy, but one who, while gifted, may not have developed quite the way Carlyle and the brass would have liked. Two years ago I doubted the Leafs would ever consider trading him. Now…

Young Percy has opened my eyes and while there is no guarantee he will blossom the way some now envision in light of his surprising early-season performance, he, too, will no doubt anchor the defense for years to come. With Franson and Polak already on the roster and Finn, Granberg and Nillson likely capable of NHL playing time (and maybe more than that) before long, it does trigger a question: could the Leafs now survive if Phaneuf were out for an extended period?

To extend the thought, is the captain now replaceable enough that, if he was traded for a solid return, others would indeed pick up the slack?

Right now, I don’t see a number-one defenseman on the Leaf roster.  Rielly may well become that some day, and I don’t doubt that Gardiner could play major minutes, but he would have to become a much better player around his own net.  Neither, though, could fairly be categorized right now as a first-pairing, shutdown D-man.

So while I believe the Leafs could handle Phaneuf’s absence for a period of time, I still think they would sorely miss his presence over time.  He’s not Chara, but he competes and handles his role as the Leaf top guy. He is a generally capable defender and still contributes offensively. 

And when the coach looks down the bench, Phaneuf is still the guy he taps on the shoulder more than anyone else, night in and night out.

The Leafs are, hopefully, building toward a day when they can thrive without the individual who is still their best defenseman—because they have so much proven depth and experience that he no longer will have to play that “indispensible” role.

But for now, there is still a “Dion dependency”, and it may be that way for a while, still.


  1. To answer your question, Michael, I wondered in what games this year Phaneuf had been the deciding factor. There aren't any. In what games had his leadership and determination to win turned the tide for the team? None. In how many games had he delivered a momentum-changing hit? Zero. Zip. Zilch. I know it's early in the season, but... yes, the Leafs could survive without him. I think the D would be just about as mediocre as they've been most nights this year, with about the same number of hits, misses and outright gaffes. To be fair, I could say that about anyone on the team this season - except maybe Komarov, whose absence was definitely felt last year and most likely would be this year, too.
    Of course, one of the reasons we could survive Dion's loss is that - unlike Detroit, say - we don't have a defensive system that the players understand and execute. So we'd likely see the same inconsistency we've been seeing for the last year and a half.
    Here at O'Malley Manor there's an unmistakeable chill in the air, the sky is a foreboding gray, and we're preparing for the bleak season that is inevitably to come. And that's pretty much how I feel about the Leafs this year!

    1. I hear you, Gerund O'. You may not be alone in wondering which direction the ship is headed right now.

  2. Hi Michael,

    we discussed the topic of the most indispensible player 5 weeks ago, and you mentioned last years article too.
    But we are talking Dion now. And he is, slightly behind Kessel, the player we can not afford to loose for a longer time. But the question seems a little bit odd at this time while we are not able to say what the leafs are at this moment or where they stand. If they continue to play that way it won't hurt whoever is missing.

    Our defense is very, very bad! The question if he is a number one D-man is rediculous because he is the only D-man on the Leafs who is a true 1 - 3 D-man. Rielly does not belong in that category now, he will in the not so distant future. Robidas is the nearest to that category but we will see how he will play out.
    Gardiner (haven't we discussed him enough lately?) will never be.
    Franson is a bottom pair guy. So is Polak (but he is not the problem).
    Percy seems to be a lock for the future but they reasigned him to the Marlies today.
    Yes it really is so terrible.

    Eklund from Hockeybuzz wrote yesterday that the asking Prices for D-man are through the roof now.
    That makes me think if they will be able to trade Gardiner and Franson for a decent return (if someone is willing to take them, perhaps they do not belong to the defense man in question).

    We should reserve our judgement on Finn, he only played 2 games as a pro.
    What we have seen from Granberg in training camp, it is likely he will never develop into a full time NHL D-man.
    Loov will be a full time NHLer and Nielson seems to be good as well.

    No, they can not survive without Phaneuf, we do not even know if they can with him.
    If Shanahan decides they won't make the Playoffs and there is more to do than changing a few players they can trade him if they can get a good return, but do not expect them better as brutal in the next two years. Others can not pick up the slack. They can not even pull their weight (except from a few).

    The concern is that you can not take the route the Oilers took so I am clearly opposed to trading Dion. He is our only option on D to make this a team that can content for the playoffs.

    He is the indispensible guy on D.

    What a brutal saturday. Where will this end? Without a radical change how the players aproach their game, every hope of making the post season is will be gone soon.
    Carlyle was doomed by a lot of people because he said "compete level" so often last season.
    Robidas is new to the team and he said after a few games that the compete level is not nearly high enough!

    But what really keeps my spirits up is that Kadri is searching for his compete level and if he can get it going at some point he will be as good as Tavares because he is equally talented!!!!!

    Sometimes I wonder if the Young D-man Carlyle talked about at clean out day was a young center in reality...

    Gerund, my glas is empty today. I need another bottle.


    P.S.: I wrote this before your comment was visible Gerund. Funny you were the first one today.

    1. Hi Marcus- it's difficult to find a lot of optimism just yet his season. I know some fans are looking to Carlyle, but I'm more of the view that the players need to be a lot more consistent in their approach.

      I think a lot of people feel the talent level here is OK, but the game-to-game consistency is seemingly not there.

    2. Cheers, Marcus! Believe me, I know how you feel!

  3. Oh yes Michael, they need to be. And giving everything they got seems to be a good idea.
    If you are not as good as the other team, okay. But what prevents you from knocking some guys down in front of your own net instead of letting them do what they want? If they would at least give it their all. I can live with a loss as Long as I have the feeling there was no other other option.

    It is not on Carlyle. It is on the players.

  4. Leafs Fan in MexicoOctober 26, 2014 at 10:28 PM

    For most of last year, analysis of Phanuef's performance was always prefaced by "he plays enormous minutes...." as if that observation was something more than a quantitative description of how much time he spent on the ice.

    We must all agree, that Phanuef is a top four defenseman. Top two? ....questionable. Captain material? Its hard to say definitively if you are not in the dressing room, but judging from what we see on the ice and at post game press conferences, have to say no.

    Why? We discussed it here on VLM and its being talked about increasingly as the Leafs demonstrate an inability to play at the top of their game, game in game out: Accountability.

    As one post a week ago noted, Leafs don't seem to hate to loosing enough (sure sign of not caring). Where is the Whip of Accountability? If there was one, all players would leave everything on the ice every night. If its not one gaff or lazy play its another? Who is holding these guys accountable to avoidable let downs? More maddening yet its always different players.....!!!

    32 years of playing hockey tells me that this modus operandi on a team with a good to decent level of talent is a product of a uneven/absent leadership. Of course, all players must be leaders in one respect of the game or another, so all are culpable. But captains have more responsibility to light the fire under the proverbials..

    I question Phanuef as the team leader. (We need also cast an eye at Carlyle, but I leave that for another discussion). At the very least, I would like to see Dion absolutely sputtering mad at the end of any game where the boys have let themselves down with uneven uninspired play.... Ideally he needs to bust a gut on every play (maybe fewer minutes are in order?).

    I would be ok loosing 82 games where the boys fought tooth and nail in every game over loosing 50% for lack consistently trying 100%

    I'll say it again, this core is not inspiring me to like them.. Maybe its the coach, or the lighting, or a lack of chemistry..... ya sure...

    PS big minutes being correlated to playing well is as as spurious as high Corsi indicating quality possession (e.g., Lupul, Kadri and Winnik last night).

    1. These do feel like familiar themes, Leafs Fan in Mexico: leadership, accountability, consistency, etc.

      I'm sure the Leafs will have a nice streak at some point soon, win a few games, and we'll all return to a more optimistic view. But these sporadic signs have been present many times over the last several years, and at the end of the day, have been a mirage.

      Coaching, systems, stats, whatever. This team has some skill, but so does everyone else. What they need is top-flight goaltending and a strong commitment to team defense, supported by an immense desire to do what it takes to win games. That includes all the things we have talked about here for years- being hard to play against, winning battles, competing, etc.

    2. Leafs Fan in MexicoOctober 26, 2014 at 11:42 PM

      I just want to be constantly inspired Michael, that's all!

    3. Leafs Fan in Mexico, a couple of your comments (regarding the 'Whip of Accountability' - excellent term! - and 'the coach') inspired an observation/thought: It seems as though Randy is actually functioning in the Captain's role as that 'Whip' - perhaps that is why things are so 'disjointed'. Carlyle may be subconsciously 'stepping up' to fill a void of player leadership and that may account for his 'lack of answers' and frustration. Perhaps someone else should be filling that void, so Randy can focus on HIS job!

  5. It would seem that the hallmark of professional athletes is consistency (not consistently uninspiring, mind you, rather consistently motivated/motivating, working, and competing with demonstrably intent). I expect professionals to be constantly improving their physical (and mental) skillsets and to see that manifesting in their play.

    I have often thought about your previous post regarding Phaneuf and asked the same question as we move forward. For me, Dion seems to be struggling with the change to his 'strong' side, yet he is being a professional about it publicly (accepting the mandate and not becoming an 'issue'), yet I think it exposes some deficiencies that I hope he is working on. He seems uncomfortable, slow and unsure when 'pivoting to the left' to address a rush on his left (far more so than when he's on the right). As an unskilled skater, I notice my turns to the left are much more confident than to the right... I wonder if that's his (opposite) problem. When skating, I always try to improve my right turns and wonder if that is true of Phaneuf. Perhaps he should note Reimer's willingness to work on (backwards) skating fundamentals and follow suit... James seems to have improved his skating and puck handling for this season, and that is a testament to a positive professional work ethic.

    If Phaneuf is improving his game (while we note his current 'mediocrity') he may be more well-rounded as the season progresses, in which case, he becomes more indispensable - or a better trade asset. If it is the latter option, then I think we are still in a better position to survive without him (this year, more than last).

    Morgan has become noticeably stronger on the man without losing his speed and maneuverability. Rielly seems to just be on an upward progression in his development... i.e. he's a real professional. Gardiner seems to struggle with some of the 'hard areas' of the game, even though he often accomplishes a lot with his stick and skates, there are times he needs to be more committed to doing the difficult jobs the more 'traditional' way (like the end boards debacle the other day).

    Percy may well have opened the door for the team to consider its options and from what I see of Loov, he has some wheels, a bit of 'nasty' and is finding his N. American game. Others are on the horizon, so it may not be long before we may see changes that address other needs. I'm in no rush to 'sell low' on Dion, but I wouldn't be against a trade if it made us better (and filled a real - honest - need for another team).

    One caveat: my hope is that the team is able to 'rightly identify' wherever there may be any actual disconnect with the direction intended for the team so that the right moves can be made that will positively impact the dressing room and the on-ice product.

    1. I appreciate your reflections on the captain, InTimeFor62. Your final lines give pause- right now it feels as though there is a disconnect between philosophy, system, coach, player accountability and what this team's identity is (if it has one) or is supposed to be.

      Still early, but lots of questions.

  6. (This might read a bit off topic Michael, but I hope to eventually circle around to the point of your much needed article!)

    Not to throw yet another log on the fire here, but I'm worried our bigger issue might be player development, which is a bit different than simply the names on the jerseys. You can look at some of the so-called "nobodies" that Detroit has turned into solid NHLers, and even look at the Bruins, as a closer example, based on that last game. At first, I wondered if market pressure might be a bit much in TO, looking at guys like Luke Schenn, or even Kadri and Gardiner not seeming to offer year-to-year progression as a Leaf. But look at recent Cup winners that have brought young men into their squads, whether it's Doug Hamilton, Tory Krug or Brandon Saad (and a pile of Kings), the elite teams seem to have a way of inserting new pieces and maximizing potential.

    I think this reflects badly not on the Leafs young guys, but on the combination of coaching, and the veteran core at the NHL level. One would think that a Marlies team with three North Division titles in a row would be overflowing with youngsters ready to compete at the NHL level, but the brakes seem to get slammed on when they get called up and lace 'em up for the big team. I look at our lack of veteran leadership and work ethic here, and cry foul. Entering the NHL as a rookie, imagine having Toews, Keith, Bergeron, Chara, or Kopitar, as your go-to guys in terms of "how to do stuff" at the major league level. Now to focus on the Leafs, let's use Phaneuf and Kessel as relevant veteran examples, the difference being pretty obvious. Kessel is elite and talented but terribly inconsistent with little grit, so maybe not the best example for young forwards to follow. Dion just isn't near as talented as his contract might indicate, and his on-ice gaffs hardly make him a convincing voice to call out young D-men and demand more of them.

    So a long way around to your point, I don't really see that key Leaf that would be hard to survive without, whether it's Phaneuf, or somebody else. In a couple of years, hopefully Morgan Rielly will be that guy, but based on the player development issues I mentioned earlier, I won't hold my breath.

    Sorry to be a bit negative, but the Jekyll and Hyde persona of this squad over the past 4 years hasn't been getting any less frustrating.

    1. Great point. That is something I have wondered about for a long time as well Russ. They do need more good examples in the room for the kids to learn from and for someone to talk to when needed as well. Other than Lupul, and maybe JVR someday but he is still youngish too, I don't see many of our better players as the type to take kids aside and give them a talking to or advice when required. I can see the Winnicks and Robidas doing that now as well.

      Which is why I am glad to see that Shanahan has hired Mark Hunter as Director of Player Development. We have not had that position that i know of and if we did he certainly didn't stand out very well. Hunter has a solid successful history of working with the kids in junior and always seeming to have to good teams and kicking out a number of pros. Hopefully some of that can translate from the junior game to the younger NHL crowd.

  7. Hi Russ- we've talked about the question of development here, for sure, Russ. It's one thing to draft players with talent/potential, but quite another to nurture their development, build their confidence in the right way, help them become solid professionals and all-around contributors. The Leafs seem to fail in terms of helping players reach their potential in this market. Hopefully Rielly will be different.

  8. Seems your question could be put to the test now.

    1. Hi Michael, Marcus and everyone.
      I've been wondering if there will be updates on Phaneuf. Dion plays whether he's hurt or not so the question could also be "can the Leafs survive with him playing through an injury?".

      There was no sympathy for him when he struggled through the last of the season with a shoulder injury--in fact it was never mentioned. I'd rather see Phaneuf miss games now while the season's young than play, possibly the rest of the year, injured. (the "pop" sounds a lot like what Gunnar suffered--the labrum holds the hip joint in the socket. I don't know how Gunnar played on it for two years!)

      The constant use of injured players regardless of their importance to the team, or players not at 100%, is one of my biggest complaints about Carlyle, and Nonis' and Loiselle's mismanagement of the club and the cap which made it often impossible to re-place injured players or run a full roster. It will take more than a season to fix all the mistakes but I'm glad we have Pridham.

      Unfortunately, we may never hear if Dion is hurt but may see it in his play. Dion often gets ripped for what he doesn't or can't do but receives no credit for playing through pain.

    2. Hi Colleen,

      I wrote something to you in the blog before. Did you read it?

      His knee loocked at the Impact like he tore something in his knee (ACL; MCL whatever), but he was on the ice today so that was not the case. And the pop in the hip, I don't know.
      Perhaps there is something.
      I agree he does not get enough credit for what he does, same with Kessel he very often plays hurt to and gets no credit for that.

      But everybody does this. Everyone plays hurt in this league, it is very common.

    3. Hi Marcus. Yep. I always check--been busy working on the fire-fighter's Haunted House. (proceeds to food bank.)
      I hope Dion's okay. Holland is looking better lately, isn't he? Wish they'd give Ashton a try.

    4. Holland looks better. He only needs a bit of veteran help on his line ( or in other words: better linemates). I hope so to. No I don't, Ashton and Frattin are brutal and they don't belong. They must go.

    5. I kind of like Ashton but it's a waste of cap to keep him sitting and makes it harder to call up others. He's been practicing defense and PK and is strong on boards. I'd like to see him used for a few games and then make a firm decision whether it's keep, trade (which I think they've already tried) or waivers. CBJ might be interested--brutal injuries right now.

    6. We do not know how the situation on the trade market is right now. i do not like the 7 D. And let him play a game could not be worse than playing Frattin.
      Not as often as you, but sometimes I do not really know what they are doing.
      Sometimes I want to ask somebody why did you trade for Frattin? Or why do you keep him and Ashton?
      Burke collecting a lot of former 1st round picks the other teams did not want anymore has not worked.

  9. Just wanted to add, Michael--- Chris Neil holding the head of Boll (?)with one hand, while trying to gouge his eye with the other, is probably the worst thing I've seen in a hockey game. Almost unbelievable until you look at who was involved.

    1. Well said, Colleen, as that just had all sorts of creepy all over it, and it was that bizarre sort of behavior that a few NHL players sadly possess. It's up there with some of the after whistle foot-stomps with a skate blade we've seen, and while I'm not a proponent of fighting and goonery, if Neil ended up with some sort of "tuning in" from a concerned player on an opposing squad, I think I'd be able to hole my tears back.

      As far as Phaneuf potentially being injured, I remember a well played highlight from his Calgary days, where he just got pasted while standing on one foot, and the HNIC crew just kept replaying the ridiculous pressure put on his leg over and over, as he had the skate blade planted on the ice firmly dug in. I would have been severed at the waist if that happened, but then again I definitely don't have his build. Some guys are prone to injury, and Dion is as far away from that list as anyone I can imagine, especially his lower body. I'd be more specific, but with the NHL, "lower body" is apparently as close as we're allowed to target or dissect!

  10. Nice to see that you are back with Hangouts!
    I appreciate that!

    But I have something to say:
    That analytics stuff is so big in recent times and it takes such a lot of space in blogs and articles, but there are so much missunderstandings and missinterpretations by the people reading and trying to understand. Even experts on television show that they struggle with that stuff and the used terms.
    Having Rob Vollman on the show seems to me as an opportunity to make a lot of these things clear.
    I would have some questions to start with and the conversation raised some other questions.
    I really missed that and I think you missed an opportunity there. But I think Anthony is to much into it to have the required distance, he probably does not see the raising questions. And I have no idea how much you know about this stuff. That was a bit sad though.

    Nevertheless it is very good to have you back on screen!

    1. Our guest was very good and I thought Anthony did an excellent job. From my perspective, there's a lot for me to learn about analytics. I knew I would not cover all the bases.

    2. No Michael, if you feel the need to defend them I must have made the wrong impression.
      I am very sorry. I think all three of you did an excellent Job. That's not wnat I meant.

      Another try:

      This Show I would have liked to contribute, I had so much ideas about it.

      It started last year a bit but this year it is everywhere and there is a devide not only between old school and analytics guys, but in the language. I read a lot of articles and at least once a day if not more I catch myself having difficulties to really understand what they mean. To lay my hands on it.
      And other people have difficulties too. Glenn Healy showed that he had difficulties with the term posession. I read the term posession in some articles so often that the whole subjec gets cloudy.
      I would like to know if there is a way to close the gap a bit. and how that stuff can be used
      in a more simple manner on a game to game basis.

      It is a difficult subject and I struggeld a bit here but I hope you understand what I mean.

      Sorry again for the missunderstanding.

    3. I totally understand, Marcus- I was not concerned, but I appreciate your comments. I think we're all looking to better understand 'advanced stats' so they will help our understanding of the game and how players contribute. Thanks Marcus.