Why Phaneuf is a Norris candidate

9 Apr


In a season where the Leafs’ top prospect Nazem Kadri has gone many nights carrying the team’s offence on his back with his point per game production, where James Reimer has consistently given the Leafs a chance to win every night putting up a 15-5-4 record, where Phil Kessel has rounded out his game to be a dependable two-way winger who’s willing to battle against the boards, it’s easy to forget about the Leafs one player who has been doing the majority of the dirty work to allow the others to shine. Phaneuf may not be making highlight reel passes, momentum shifting saves or redefining the type of player he is, like his peers may be, but quietly Phaneuf has become the team’s most valuable player and has earned the “C” stitched on his jersey. Here at LeafsHero we’ll look at the different elements of Phaneuf’s game that make him not only the team’s MVP but a possible Norris Trophy nominee.

Phaneuf Summary

Goals 7 5th among NHL Defensemen
Points  24 5th among NHL Defensemen
TOI/G 25:40 7th among NHL Defensemen
SH TOI/G 3:02 Top 30 in League [On 3rd best PK in NHL]
Hits 106 Top 30 in NHL
Blocked Shots 72 Top 30 in NHL
Defensive/Neutral Zone Start % 58.8% 5th among NHL Defensemen
Quality of Competition 1.90 1st in NHL
Quality of Teammates -0.430 Lowest among NHL Defensemen

Difficulty of minutes played

What truly makes Phaneuf’s season so outstanding is not the mere statistics he’s put up, but the difficulty he has had to face to do so. To asses just how difficult the minutes Phaneuf plays are we’ll look at three variables: 1) the level of competition Phaneuf faces, 2) the quality of the team-mates he plays with, and 3) how often he starts his shifts outside of the offensive zone. First we’ll look at the quality of his competition. It’s clear that playing 30 minutes a night against Sidney Crosby and only allowing a single goal is much more difficult than playing 30 minutes a night against a line of goons and having the same success, but in the past it was harder to quantify and compare just how difficult the competition a player is facing relative to others. That’s why our friends over at behindthenet.ca use a stat Quality of Competition, or QoC, which compares the Corsi of different players a player plays against. For example, if a player plays 10 minutes against Malkin they will have a higher QoC than if they had played those 10 minutes again Weiss.  According to behindthenet, Phaneuf has a remarkably high QoC , highest among all NHL players, and surprisingly higher than any other defensemen. Phaneuf’s QoC is 1.90, which is .54 higher than second place Ekman-Larsson. To put that in to perspective, Ekman-Larsson is .54 higher than 17th place Ericsson, who is .54 higher than 42nd place Brewer.  To put it simply, no NHL player on any team plays against anywhere close to as hard of competition as Dion Phaneuf. Secondly, we’ll look at Phaneuf’s team-mates. Again, it is obvious that playing with better team-mates is easier than playing with weaker ones. Look no further than James Neal of the Penguins to see a clear example of this. Behindthenet uses a statistic similar to QoC to determine a players Quality of Teammates, QoT. Surprisingly,  Phaneuf has the lowest QoT of any defensemen in the NHL. Again, in simple terms, Phaneuf plays with the weakest line mates of any NHL defensemen. The last factor to consider when determining the difficulty of the minutes played by a player is percentage of starts outside the offensive zone. Similiar to QoC or QoT, % offensive zone starts, or the opposite (% def./net zone starts) is easy to understand. It’s much easier to score goals and not allow goals from your competition if you’re starting all your shifts in the offensive zone than if you were starting them in the defensive zone. Again by using behindthenet, we see that Phaneuf starts 58.8% of his shifts outside the offensive zone. In the NHL only 4 defensemen start more shifts outside the offensive zone: Coburn, Hedman, Salo and Bouwmeester, all players who Phaneuf plays more minutes than. In short, Dion Phaneuf plays against harder competition than any other player in the league, with less support from team-mates than any other defensemen in the league, while also being given among the lowest amount of offensive zone starts.

Success during those minutes

Being given difficult minutes, on it’s own, is not impressive, but having success during those minutes, like Phaneuf has, is. Offensively, Phaneuf in the top five among NHL defensemen in both goals and points. The more you think about that, the more outstanding it is. Not only does Phaneuf have to stop the Crosby’s and Stamkos’s of the NHL from scoring, but while playing against them he’s able to keep them in their own zone long enough to consistently generate scoring chances. Also, when you look at the defencemen ahead of Phaneuf in the scoring race (Subban, Suter, Letang, Kronwall), all of them are starting between 50-53% off their starts in the offensive zone. Phaneuf is currently on pace for a 15 goal and 50 point pro-rated season. In terms of his physical and defensive presence, not much has changed for Phaneuf from past years. He’s still in the top 30 in the league for hits and blocked shots and has been able to keep his plus/minus at around even. Plus/minus is often said to be too subjective of a statistic to really use, which I tend to agree with. Yet having already established who Phaneuf tends to play against, and who he tends to play alongside, the subjectivity of the statistic is a cause for concern. The last element of Phaneuf’s game that has stuck out this season is his contributions on the penalty kill. Phaneuf has played over three minutes a game for the Leafs’ top 3 penalty kill, playing only less minutes than Jay McClement.

To conclude, Dion Phaneuf has gone through this season playing significantly harder minutes than any other defensemen in the NHL, including Chara, Weber, Karlsson, Subban, etc, and has still been able to put up comparable numbers. It seems clear than Phaneuf has proven he’s a strong candidate for the Norris Trophy.


2 Responses to “Why Phaneuf is a Norris candidate”

  1. Dan C April 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Excellent piece. It’s a drag that the majority of fans have no idea of the actual numbers behind the numbers. Thanks for this.

  2. Chris McHugh April 10, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Good stuff. That QoC stat is excellent and adds another dimension to TOI and plus/minus.

    Given the captaincy when he had not earned it, through no fault of his own (unless he demanded it, which I doubt), made things very tough for him early on. This season he has better teammates around him and has also proved a very capable leader.

    If you don’t hear a defenseman’s name too much during a game it shows he is doing ahis job quietly and effectively. In that respect, I think Mark Fraser has been absolutely superb this year and extremely reliable, perhaps even outperforming Phaneuf on occasion.

    Sometimes I wish Phaneuf would relax with the media a little, and Lupul is much better at that than him, but its a very minor gripe and I agree he should be considered for the Norris.

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