Victim of Expectations


Dion Phaneuf, as of right now, is not a Norris trophy candidate.

Phaneuf took the National Hockey League by storm in his rookie season, producing 20 goals as a 20-year-old defenseman. He then had a successful sophomore campaign, breaking the 50-point barrier. In his third year, he had a 10-point increase and produced 60 points, gaining him consideration for the Norris trophy at only 22 years old.

Since then, however, Phaneuf has regressed. If his on-pace numbers are realized, this will be his worst season in terms of points, although he will pass his career-low 11 goals of last season.

While those type of numbers would warrant a top-two spot on almost any defense corps in the league, it's a little different in Phaneuf's case.

For one, he has a cap-hit of $6.5 million through the 2013-14 season. Phaneuf's cap hit makes him the seventh highest-paid defenseman in the NHL, joining a group of Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Scott Neidermeyer, Brian Campbell, Jay Bouwmeester and Dan Boyle. So you know what kind of player the Calgary Flames were expecting. They wanted a Norris Trophy winner. Didn't happen, and Phaneuf's drop-off---not only offensively, but defensively--- caused a backlash.

In a Calgary Sun article posted yesterday, Olli Jokinen said Phaneuf was not a cancer in the dressing room, despite certain rumours, and that the reason general manager Darryl Sutter traded him was because he was not accepted by the Calgary fans.

And why do you think that is?

Well, posting a 60-point season, getting nominated for the Norris trophy and then receiving a mammoth raise, only to struggle for the next 18 months, might do it.

But as a 24-year-old defenseman, is Phaneuf's potential as a future Norris Trophy winner really in jeopardy?

As Gus pointed out in his article of Phaneuf's regression in context, the rearguard played through a number of injuries while logging considerable ice-time in the 2008-09 season. Then, the addition of Bouwmeester to the Flames' blueline cut Phaneuf's ice-time by just over three minutes per game this season.

Also, consider that Phaneuf averaged 5:34 powerplay time-on-ice per game in 2008-09. This season, he averaged 3:46 per game with the Flames. That sort of ice-time would compare him with the likes of Micheal Del Zotto (3:53), Marek Zidlicky (3:48), Alex Goligoski (3:46), Scott Neidermeyer (3:42) and Kyle Quincey (3:41). Aside from Neidermeyer, who is 36 years old, that is not a group of elite offensive defensemen. Still, Phaneuf is ranked 7th in the NHL for PP goals in defensemen. With the Leafs, he will now log considerable ice-time with Tomas Kaberle on the PP for the remaining 25 games. Also, if Kaberle is shipped this summer, expect Phaneuf to be the Leafs' go-to guy on the blueline.

But the point of all this is not to convince you that Phaneuf will one day win the Norris trophy with the Leafs. In fact, it's that sort of thinking that could lead to his demise in Toronto.

While there are various reasons that could have led to Phaneuf's downfall in Calgary, the criticism he received from Flames fans for not performing at an elite level surely did not help. Did they have reason? Sure, especially considering his salary.

But, it's an entirely new chapter for Phaneuf in Toronto. A fresh start. A clean slate. Whatever the hell you want to say.

The point is that Leafs fans cannot regard Phaneuf as one of the league's best defenseman. Not yet. This fan base is notorious for unrealistic expectations from their players, and it often leads to disappointment because any mistake that player makes is magnified, when it really needs to be put in context. The last thing we need is another defenseman who's gripping the stick a little too tight and not playing his game.

If you think about it, Phaneuf, like the Leafs, is taking baby steps towards regaining his form. It would be detrimental to this team's long-term vitality to expect instant results from a player who is 24 years old.

In time, those expectations will be warranted, but for now, patience is our best friend.

ronguillet@gmail.com