Hey, lay off Phaneuf

Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf fights with Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the Prudential...

Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf fights with Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on December 26, 2010. (PAUL BERESWILL/Getty Images)

ROB HIGGINS, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:36 PM ET

TORONTO - A $6.5M cap hit. That's the number most often associated with the Dion Phaneuf file these days.

Considering the importance of salary structure to a rebuilding team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, the conversation is a natural. Especially when the subject has provided ample evidence to suggest he doesn't necessarily think the game as well as, oh, Nik Lidstrom or even Tomas Kaberle, for that matter. But the conversation doesn't end there, does it?

Local Maple Leaf coverage this season has gone from theatre of the absurd (a "must win" game in November? ... really?) to outrageously negative (they won't make the playoffs until at least 2018? ... really?) to begrudgingly supportive (apparently, Dion Phaneuf wasn't brought in to be Bobby Orr).

Sigh.

Look, only 5 teams have more wins than the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs since the All-Star Game. Only 10 teams if you take it all the way back to New Year's Day. From that perspective, we're talking about 2 full months of play, or roughly a third of the NHL's regular season.

Only 6 teams have scored more goals than they have since the All-Star Game. Just 8 if you take it all the way back to the first of January.

James Reimer has been a difference-maker, there is little doubt about that. The team seems to play well in front of him and he appears to be capable of making the timely save. But he's not the only reason the team has enjoyed some success and to undermine the contributions of the most-maligned pieces Brian Burke has acquired in his attempt to construct a winner, namely Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, in the process, would be typically Toronto, the city that's been known to eat its own with the best of them.

Well, for just a minute, let's focus on the bright side of the Dion Phaneuf file and the trade that ultimately led to his audition for the role played by departed villains, Larry Murphy and Hal Gill.

For starters, let's recognize that the trade with Calgary also brought back the impressive behemoth known as Keith Aulie, a tough, Burke type with a seemingly bright future and significant role with the club. A youngster that came with a cap hit of less than $800K, by the way, and has been a difference-maker in his own right since the trading of Francois Beauchemin.

Second, despite all the success the Calgary Flames are enjoying right now, how vital have Matt Stajan and Nik Hagman been? They're third liners that have been usurped by the likes of David Moss, Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glenncross.

Dion Phaneuf, on the other hand, the player that scored 77 times in the first five years after the lockout while posting 190 hits and 80 blocked shots in 4 of them, has been a key cog in the blue and white's surge and, like Brian Burke, he deserves some credit.

The facts

• Phaneuf has averaged 3.1 shots on goal in 2010/11. Only 3 other defensemen have posted a better number and they are Dustin Byfuglien, Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber. Phaneuf has put more pucks on net on a per game basis than Kris Letang, Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle.

• Of the 11 blue liners that have averaged 2.5 shots on goal or more this season, not a single one has been credited with more hits or blocked shots per game than Dion Phaneuf. A fact. In that regard, Shea Weber comes closest to keeping pace with him.

Since the All-Star Game ...

• Phanuef has 9 points in 17 games (13th among defensemen, tied with Kaberle, Alex Goligoski and Weber, among others) with 4 coming on the power play.

• He has 50 shots on goal, just a hair under 3 per game. When he registered seasons of 20, 17 and 17 goals between 2005/06 and 2007/08 he averaged between 2.91 and 3.21 shots on goal per.

• He's a plus player at +2. Byfuglien, Chara, Letang, Weber and Brent Burns, the other five blue line shooters with 45 shots or more, are a combined -18, with Weber being the only other one with a positive number attached to his file. (Since the lockout that wiped out 2004/05, Dion Phaneuf is +11).

• The - 31 turnover differential he posted last year, in his time split between Calgary and Toronto, was actually an improvement over two of the four seasons that he put up 45 points or more during his best Calgary days. In fact, -26 of that number was created over the first 40 games of the 2010/11 campaign. Post-January 1, he was only -5, in that regard. In 2006/07 he was a -39 and and in 2008/09 he was a -41.

Since Kaberle was traded to Boston ...

• Phaneuf has 5 points in 8 games, 12th best in the NHL from the blue line. Thomas Kaberle has 1 in his 7 Bruin contests. 106 blue line options have posted more.

• Phaneuf has 3 power play points. Kaberle has none.

• Toronto has scored 23 times in 8 games. Only 7 teams have buried more.

• Toronto has given up 22 goals. Only 8 teams have surrendered more.

James Reimer is, no doubt, making a significant contribution to the recent success of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And he deserves to be applauded for his performance. But to discount the results produced by Dion Phaneuf, especially after most assumed Kaberle's departure would lead to less team offensive, is just more negativity.

A $6.5M cap hit is, of course, high. Few blue liners are worthy of that kind of commitment. But to lament Phaneuf's acquisition and presence in the grand scheme is no less ludicrous. Especially when talking about a team that has genuine busts in J.S. Giguere and Mike Komisarek. No, both Phaneuf and the beaten down general manager responsible for swapping the spare parts to bring him and Keith Aulie in deserve a significant amount of the credit for the positivity that the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans are currently enjoying.

Rob Higgins is the author of the 2010-11 Higgins Hockey Fantasy Index, co-host of The Point: Fantasy Edition on XM’s NHL Home Ice and a regular guest of Sirius Fantasy Sports Radio and, at times, The Bill Watters Show. He's also the bassist/singer in Toronto-based band, Dearly Beloved.

Hockeyfantasyindex.com

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Twitter = Higgy2112


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