Is Toronto Maple Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf Still an Elite NHL Defenseman?

James OnuskoContributor IIIOctober 15, 2013

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 01: Dion Phaneuf #3 and Nazem Kadri #43 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate a goal against the Montreal Canadiens  during the NHL game on October 1st, 2013 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf might be the most polarizing figure in the NHL today. Despite being the No. 1 defenseman for the Leafs, his critics remain.

In January of 2012, 161 of his NHL peers voted him the most overrated player in the game. However, it should be noted that the reigning Hart Trophy winner as the league's most valuable player, Alexander Ovechkin, came in second.

In other words, take the results with a grain of salt as there could have been a number of motivators at work here.

Regardless, Phaneuf has always played a brash style brimming with confidence. He has been guilty of giving the puck away at inopportune times or trying to do too much by delivering a big hit. This commitment to play the physical game at a risky time was on full display in Game 4 versus the Boston Bruins in last spring's NHL playoffs.

The ability to take the body has been a key tool for Phaneuf since his junior days in Red Deer, though. He was sixth among defensemen in hits during the lockout-shortened  2012-13 season and has been among the league leaders in that category throughout his career. He is 12th among defensemen after two weeks this year.

Additionally, Phaneuf has always played with an edge to his game. At 6'3" and well over 200 pounds, Phaneuf has amassed over 800 penalty minutes in his career. Not a small number of those minutes have been as a result of fighting majors.

But Phaneuf has never been a one-dimensional rearguard. He has consistently put up points, including 60 points in the 2007-08 season, when he was also a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman. Phaneuf was tied for ninth in defenseman scoring last season and is off to a good start this season with four points in his first six games.

Phaneuf's relative Corsi number has not been exemplary over the past five seasons, although given the Leafs' relatively poor team numbers, his annual totals are not that bad. In comparison to most of the Leaf defensemen (outside of the incomparable Cody Franson), and given his quality of competition and overall minutes played, his numbers could be much worse.

The most important metric for a defenseman is likely his ice time. Coaches reward elite players with big minutes. Phaneuf has always played a lot of minutes, and maybe more importantly, he is almost always on the ice in the biggest moments.

In some ways, he is also more susceptible to making mistakes on the biggest stages, given the amount of ice time he receives and the quality of the players he faces. The Leaf captain was 11th in ice time among defensemen in 2012-13 at just over 25 minutes per game

This season, he is currently at 25:22 in ice time per game, which has him ranked seventh among defensemen in the entire league. Also, it should be noted that Phaneuf is only eighth in giveaways for the Leafs this year with a total of six in six games.

Phaneuf's physical tools, including his shot, are undoubtedly superior. He has one of the best point shots in the game, both in terms of how hard it is and how quickly he can get it off his stick. His accuracy could use some work, as Joffrey Lupul would attest to if queried.

Ultimately, Dion Phaneuf is not just a good defenseman; he is an elite NHL defender. Without question, he has some warts, but his combination of size, skill, toughness and leadership is not easy to find at this level.

He had a recent invite to the Team Canada orientation camp for Sochi, and given his play to date, he should be given serious consideration to play for gold in Russia.

Phaneuf is due to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. The Leafs—and in particular, general manager Dave Nonis—have a difficult decision to make here.

While the Leafs have some promising youngsters, the team needs to determine if there is a suitable replacement for Phaneuf within the organization, will the open market yield one or who might be available for trade? A trade could be an option, but what would have to be given up?