*All stats in this article are as of Monday and do not reflect last night's game against the Jets*
This week, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet discussed in his excellent 30 Thoughts column that the league has taken notice of how many penalties Dion Phaneuf has taken to start the season.
14. If there's one thing Mike Babcock needs to fix with Dion Phaneuf's game, it's penalties.
As of Tuesday morning, Phaneuf is tied with Dustin Byfuglien for the NHL lead in minors, with nine. Last season, he was fifth with 39. (Byfuglien led all defencemen with 42.) In 2013-14, his 47 led everyone, two more than David Perron.
One scout said last weekend that his organization declined to pursue a trade for Phaneuf for this very reason. Lowering that total would increase his value, probably to Toronto as much as anyone else.
The last bit there, about how the perception that Phaneuf's penchant for taking penalties is souring teams on acquiring his contract from the Maple Leafs, caught my attention. I entered the season very much on the fence about whether Phaneuf should be a prime target to be moved, wondering if the change in coaching systems (read: not a tire fire) would impact the perception of Phaneuf's play and value.
You don't hook when you have the puck. You don't slash when you have the puck. When you're trying to catch up to a forward, you might just throw a stick or a hand out in your opponent's way and hope for the best.
Early returns are mixed. Phaneuf's offence appears to have been jump-started - he leads the team in assists and is tied for second with Joffrey Lupul in team scoring - and his early season possession numbers are miles better than they've been at any point previously in his Maple Leafs tenure.
However, Phaneuf's a polarizing player - especially the idea of whether he should be a part of the rebuilding effort or not - and if teams aren't willing to take that chance because he's taking too many penalties, that closes a lot of doors.
So why is Dion Phaneuf taking so many penalties?
I looked into the details of what penalties Phaneuf takes, and tried to see if anything could be learned from that data about how Dion is playing. Amazingly, ESPN is the only major sport website I could find that has details* on the types of penalties that players take.
*Though their system is extremely screwed up, and a few specific types of minor penalties are grouped on a tab called "Major Penalties", and certain penalty calls aren't represented so it's not always possible to tie the details to the total. Oh, ESPN...
Anyway, we've grouped the types of penalties into a few larger groups that represent similar stylistic types of infractions.
Obstruction - Stick Penalties - hooking and tripping penalties
Obstruction - Body Penalties - holding, holding the stick, and interference penalties
Aggressive - Stick Penalties - slashing, cross-checking, high-sticking penalties
Aggressive - Body Penalties - roughing and boarding penalties
Other Penalties - a catch-all of more rarely called penalties. "Unsportsmanlike conduct" and "instigator" were the only ones listed on the website, but I put any differences in here and the only thing I can think of that would have been missing were delay of game penalties.
The first graph here simply shows the number of minor penalties Dion's received, going back to 2008-09 (the first season I could pull data from ESPN). To adjust for the fact that there are seasons where he played differing amounts of games (and a lockout season), I included the "Minor Penalties per Game Played" trend.
it's early, but Phaneuf's penalty rate is nearly double what it was earlier in his career and has climbed significantly over the last two seasons. Friedman and his sources around the league on definitely on point here that this is a troubling development for the Leafs.
So what's behind it? Now let's look at that graph of the minor penalties taken by Phaneuf in the categories I mentioned above.
I can't really make any conclusions on the "Other" category, because I had to adjust those numbers to match ESPN's totals as I mentioned above. Besides, that's a pretty diverse range of infractions and I don't think you can draw too many conclusions.
The other two broad categories - Aggressive penalties and Obstruction penalties - are interesting. Phaneuf's total Aggressive penalties were fairly consistent going from 2009 through to 2013 (of course the lockout season so that would be a big rate jump), but frankly that's not really surprising. While his frequency of fights has declined, Dion's never been shy about playing the body or mixing it up, and when you play like that you're going to take roughing and cross-checking penalties from time to time.
The increase over the last three seasons is quite interesting, and given how it's kind of flipped in the last year and a bit to more stick-based infractions is curious. Dion's always been a player who's a little easy to get riled up, but also is consciously trying to stay out of unnecessary fights.
It's a stretch to suggest there's a link, but there could be a connection between trying to make his displeasure known through a good whack at the leg with his stick, rather than by pushing or a punch to the head. Given the rapid frequency of blatant spears and "cup checks" around the league, it's certainly plausible.
Now look at the Obstruction penalties. Phaneuf's obstruction penalties actually declined from 2010 (when he was traded to to Toronto) through to 2013, but were up sharply in 2014 when he committed 19 obstruction-related penalties. He's had just the one such penalty so far this year but after 12 games I don't think we can draw many conclusions there.
To help put these numbers into context, I've also plotted them as a percentage of the number of penalties he took in the given year, to help even out the games played discrepancies.
Let's look at the first three categories on this list; the two Obstruction categories and Aggressive Stick penalties.
Imagine you're a defenceman, and imagine the types of scenarios that would lead you to take these sorts of penalties. Holding penalties, hooking penalties, slashing penalties, high-sticking penalties... Outside of "being pissed off at someone" as an explanation for some of the slashes or cross-checks, I think most people would arrive at the same answer I did:
As a defenceman, I would take these sorts of penalties because I'm either getting beaten (or in the process of being beaten) by the forward I'm defending against, and I'm making these sorts of plays as a last-ditch effort to prevent a scoring chance. I'll take my chances on the referee being lenient.
You don't hook when you have the puck. You don't slash when you have the puck. When you're trying to catch up to a forward, you might just throw a stick or a hand out in your opponent's way and hope for the best. And sometimes that leads to calls.
For whatever reason, 2012 represents the low mark of Phaneuf's totals (just over 40% of his total minor penalties). That's progressively climbed to just under 70% last season and stands at over 80% so far this young season. Whatever Dion did do decrease them from 2011 to 2012, it's no longer working.
Two key things happened around that time. In 2011, Dion Phaneuf missed a stretch of games (really the only period as a Maple Leaf where he's been out of the lineup) because of an errant skate that badly cut his leg. It's been noticeable since that his skating, particularly his lateral movement which is damn important for a defenceman to properly play 1-on-1s, has been shockingly bad.
Over the last few years we've wondered aloud about whether Phaneuf's ever fully recovered from the effects of that injury. Phaneuf was never exactly a Morgan Rielly-level skater before; losing his mobility could be a real problem for him to be an effective defender.
The other thing was that in 2012, Randy Carlyle took over as coach. We've talked at length about the catastrophe of a defensive system Carlyle's Maple Leafs employed, which left Phaneuf repeatedly exposed and under fire as he was almost exclusively matched against other teams' top lines.
He also had a pretty underwhelming group of defensive partners, including a clearly injured Carl Gunnarsson, an incapable Roman Polak, an out-of-his-depth Korbinian Holzer, and a washed-up Stephane Robidas. It's entirely possible Matt Hunwick is the best partner Phaneuf's had since Francois Beauchemin.
Phaneuf's usage under Carlyle was also excessive, playing significant minutes in all situations, on a team that had historically awful possession numbers. You combine all of these factors - a potentially damaged Phaneuf playing significant minutes on an inferior team with a group of bad defensive teammates - and it starts to make sense why some of his penalty totals have crept so high.
The start to this year could be an anomaly, or could be another example of how defenceman often break down as they get older, as explained in this Guardian article.
What this means for Maple Leaf fans is that it's definitely not just something for Mike Babcock to worry about. Increased penalties as a result of not being able to keep up with play could be seen as a warning bell, a canary in the coal mine. If Dion Phaneuf is beginning to break down two years into a seven-year contract, his deal could prove unmovable in very short order.