2017-18 In Review: Is Phaneuf Enough?
The veteran helped solidify the Kings’ young blue line last season, but can he keep up in the evolving NHL?
In what has seemingly been an annual tradition, the Kings made a mid-season trade for a veteran who had fallen out of favor with their previous club. And like Vincent Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla before him, Dion Phaneuf immediately looked right at home with Los Angeles and their veteran core. A string of timely power play goals immediately after the trade made the comparison to the other two veteran additions even more apt.
One notable exception regarding the Phaneuf acquisition: he was not a rental, with the Kings on the hook for another three years, carrying a $5.25 million cap hit. Ottawa agreed to take the remaining three years of Marian Gaborik’s deal while covering $1.75 million a year on Phaneuf’s deal, making the money a virtual wash from a cap perspective (Gaborik, however, is owed considerably less in actual salary).
On the surface, the deal made sense. Gaborik continued to be injury-prone and had lost he explosiveness that made him one of the NHL’s most dangerous scorers. Now 36 years-old, the last three years of his deal looked particularly troublesome. Getting out from under his deal while filling a need on defense was seen as a win.
While Phaneuf contributed on the power play and earned brownie points for being good in the room, the issues that plagued him in Ottawa carried over to Los Angeles. The Kings controlled only 46% of the shot attempts while Phaneuf was on the ice, despite John Stevens giving him a favorable 55.3% of his starts in the offensive zone.
Phaneuf was not helped by the fact that his regular partner, Alec Martinez, was also in the red in all possession metrics. As a pair, they controlled only 45.4% of shot attempts and broke even in goals-for percentage. Phaneuf fared slightly better away from Martinez, carrying a 47.8% shot attempt ratio. However, this number is inflated completely by the 20 minutes he spent with the now-departed Christian Folin, as the pair controlled 55.3% of shot attempts while they were together on the ice.
In fact, nearly every current Kings’ defensemen fared worse when paired with Phaneuf:
|Player||CF% w/ Phaneuf||CF% wo/ Phaneuf||TOI as a Pair|
*All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com
While the samples outside of Martinez are all too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, it is telling that even when paired with Doughty, Phaneuf could not keep his head above water.
Which is not to say all hope is lost. Phaneuf’s influence on the power play was palpable, as the Kings converted on 19% of their PP opportunities before he arrived and 22.5% after his arrival. Jeff Carter’s return from injury not long after the Phaneuf acquisition also helped, of course. But Dion’s 3 goals and 4 assists with the man-advantage are not to be overlooked. He also showed a knack for getting the puck through to the net, with a 1.85 shots per game that was third among Kings’ defensemen, behind Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin.
Along with showing some offensive awareness, the 6’4” Phaneuf has never been afraid of throwing his weight around. He averaged about two hits per game for the Kings, right around his career norm. He took only five minor penalties while drawing six. His season total of 20 penalties is roughly average for an NHL defensemen.
With the game shifting ever rapidly towards mobile, puck-moving defensemen, every coach still makes room on their roster for at least one imposing figure on the blue line. Physicality is still valued, even if it is not prioritized. That Phaneuf can assume that role while still knowing what to do with a puck on his stick is helpful.
It helps that John Stevens is prepared to utilize Phaneuf in such a way that should mitigate his stationary style of play, while putting him in a position to utilize his strengths. Where previous coaches wedged him into a shut-down role, Stevens hardly used him on the power play and started him primarily in the offensive zone. It will be fascinating to watch whether he keeps him tied to Martinez or opts to pair him with one of the Kings’ younger defensemen.
With the Kings’ defense skewing even younger than last season, look for Phaneuf to once again average close to 20 minutes a game while helping anchor one of the primary power play units. Should someone like Daniel Brickley, Paul LaDue or Oscar Fantenberg elevate their game, you could see Phaneuf’s role further diminished.
With Mike Green earning a two-year, $10.75 million deal to be a third-pairing power play specialist, along with Jack Johnson’s roundly ridiculed five-year deal with Pittsburg, the remaining three years on Phaneuf’s deal are looking more and more digestible.
While he has been discussed as a potential buyout candidate after next season, propping him up in a favorable role could potentially increase his trade value. That would be a much more desirable outcome for the Kings, particularly with their cap space growing tighter by the season. Either way, with a plethora of young, cost-controlled defensemen in their stable, it would be a surprise to see Phaneuf factor into their plans beyond the upcoming season.