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Gambling on Phaneuf - Ceci: Is Dion a good fit for the young blueliner?

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Both defensemen have been drags on possession lately. Will they be able to remedy that when paired together?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As a Sens fan living in Toronto, yesterday was a fun day. Not only did the Senators shed the salaries of Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, and Milan Michalek, they did it while acquiring a "top four" defenseman in return. Win win, right? Like many of you, I'm unsure on whether I *like* this deal. I can see the rationale for both teams - generally a criterion for having a trade go down between two NHL teams trying to improve their situation - but is Ottawa going to end up on the right side in 2021? One of the biggest unknowns, but potentially the maaaaajor key to this trade going well for the Senators, is how well Phaneuf performs alongside Cody Ceci.

What kind of defender is Phaneuf?

Ironically, the Senators traded one 9th overall pick from the WHL for another. However unlike Cowen, Phaneuf actually played up to his potential as he scored 54 goals and 159 points in his first 243 games in the NHL. Notably, things started to go downhill for Phaneuf when he was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a blockbuster trade and crumbled under the pressure of playing first-pair minutes against top competition every night. Where does he stand right now? Let's use some underlying metrics to try and answer this question. Why? Jack Han, video and analytics coordinator for the McGill Martlets, wrote a wonderful piece the other day that captured the type of analysis we try to do when using underlying numbers:

At the simplest level, hockey is a game of goal differentials. Things such as shot differential (Corsi/Fenwick), zone deployments, and transitional metrics (zone entries and exits) are only useful insofar as giving us an educated guess of which players drive goal differential — a markedly superior guess than traditional plus/minus, by the way.

Essentially, when you look at a player's track record through the lens of advanced statistics, you can come to the conclusion that there are only three types of players:

1. Those who drive play all the time (and who makes most teammates better);
2. Those who drive play with the right linemates, and;
3. Those who do not drive play, and who tend to drag most teammates down.

The big question for us: is Phaneuf in Tier 1, 2, or 3?

Firstly, I don't think Phaneuf is in Tier 1. A quick gander at some of his underlying numbers from the past three seasons reveals that Phaneuf has offensive capabilities -- worthy of leading all Leafs defenders with 24 points this season -- but is porous defensively. This is why we hear about him being miscast in Toronto: he's big and tough, but he's not a shutdown defender.

phaneuf hero

We can also infer from the 'possession impact' section that Phaneuf isn't in Tier 3 either -- he clearly has made a positive impact on his teammates shot numbers when he's been on the ice over the last three seasons. In fact, his With-or-Without-You statistics from Micah over at HockeyViz will lead you to the same inference: Phaneuf is a drag on his teammates defensively but seems to have a moderate offensive impact.

Thus, Phaneuf appears to be in Tier 2 like most defenders: he can drive play, but with the right linemates.

What type of linemate makes him effective?

Jonathan Willis wrote a piece yesterday where he stated the following:

It starts with his partner. Phaneuf typically played with Jake Gardiner this year, and the difference in his performance with and without player is breathtaking. As a duo, Gardiner and Phaneuf had a 53.2 percent Corsi rating, three points better than the team average. They were also on the ice for as many goals for as against, remarkable on a Maple Leafs team that has been badly outscored this year at evens.

[...]

That's not all. Phaneuf has historically played the toughest available minutes. This year, Leafs coach Mike Babcock has used 21-year-old Morgan Rielly and journeyman Matt Hunwick in that role; despite Rielly's obviously exceptional quality, the pairing has been getting lit up. That allowed Gardiner and Phaneuf to take on less impressive opponents.

None of this is wrong per se: Phaneuf has been sheltered a bit more under Mike Babcock and he has found success paired with a great possession player in Gardiner. The key, however, isn't to do with quality of competition. Noted analyst and current Carolina Hurricanes analytics guru, Eric Tulsky, wrote back in 2012 that although competition metrics help us understand what a coach thinks of a certain player, it's extremely hard to find a player with such extreme usage that it'll significantly impact a player's results. If you're a fan of zone starts over quality of competition, Micah found that even last year, Phaneuf's usage was a mixture of both offensive and defensive.

Hence, let's focus on Jake Gardiner and how he could've impacted Phaneuf's performance instead. Below, you see Gardiner's numbers compared to Phaneuf's new pairmate, Cody Ceci.

ceci gardiner gif

You don't need a long time to see that Gardiner is a top-pair talent and Ceci is a bottom-pair one so far in his career. Importantly, although both have been producing at a similar level offensively, Ceci's possession impact on both offense AND defense has been poor.

Is the pairing doomed? Can Phaneuf help elevate Ceci's game?

In short: I think he *can* offensively, but am skeptical of what they can accomplish defensively. Offensively, Phaneuf uniquely addresses Ceci's biggest weakness: puck movement. Two weeks ago, I wrote about some preliminary passing data and noted this:

Ceci, however, is expected to be a top four defensemen, so having bottom of the table passing numbers is extremely concerning and again, is a reason why I wouldn't mind trading the young defenseman because it just doesn't look like his ceiling is all that high. Ceci's best ability to my eye is his skating, which is high-end and is often used to rush the puck through the neutral zone. Unfortunately, without the passing ability to distribute the puck, Ceci's effort often ends up wasted and ineffectual, leading to less sustained offensive zone pressure and may explain his poor point totals and possession numbers.

Thankfully for the young rearguard, the same data is complementary of Phaneuf's passing ability. This season, he ranks second among Leafs defenders (after Gardiner) in generating the primary pass that led to a shot attempt and taking individual shot attempts himself, and is comfortably in third in terms of generating overall shot contributions through primary, secondary, or tertiary passes. Ryan Stimson and co. are also doing great work in trying to quantify a player's contribution to their team's overall scoring network. In December, they noted that Phaneuf links to his forwards well and starts the transition to offense via primary passes in the defensive zone to exit, which could then lead to chances at the other end. By doing this work and looking at the Leafs emphasis on a top-heavy five-player unit during 5-on-5 play, they uncovered an interesting nugget about Phaneuf's game:

It could tell us that when paired with lesser lines, Phaneuf is relied upon more upon to generate in that role as compared to when he's behind the top line, they are working to create their own chances among themselves.

In sum: with high-end talent, Phaneuf's role is more complementary - start the offense with a pass from the defensive zone and let your creative forwards do the work. When he's paired with lesser talent, as he will be on the second unit in Ottawa with Ceci, he'll likely be relied on to be the "passer" with Ceci more likely to use his plus skating ability to get the duo out of trouble. The duo's success will ultimately come from whether Dion is able to do what Patrick Wiercioch was unable to do earlier in the year: use his top-four calibre puck movement ability to help the Sens exit the zone quickly. If not, the pair's terrible shot suppression numbers may catch up to them and the Senators will be trying to find a bonafide right defensemen to play with Dion instead.