To be fair to ESPN, it’s a dynamite idea. Get 30 NHL players off the record and ask them to anonymously pass judgement on their profession and peers. Some juicy details? Alexander Steen is the most underrated of players. Matt Cooke, despite his much-publicised reformation, is still seen as the dirtiest by some considerable margin (30%). And once again, Dion Phaneuf gets the dubious honour of being dubbed the most overrated player in the league.
Among the results are some worrying trends, most notably that 12% of players polled, so nearly 4 out of the 30, think Olympic athletes should not show any support for gay rights during the Sochi Olympics. Presumably too many of them have been keeping an eye on Tim Thomas’s Facebook page.
Not to mention the fact that 20% of the players polled, so 6, think their teammates are taking performance-enhancing drugs. Now that’s an issue.
But what it is about Dion Phaneuf that his peers dislike so much? Certainly the statistics don’t seem to back Phaneuf’s detractors. The 28-year-old was ranked 10th among all NHL defensemen last season in points with 9 goals and 19 assists and 11th in total ice time, so that’s out.
Does he pick easy fights? When he tussled with Philadelphia forward Brayden Schenn a couple of years ago, it was suggested by some that the incident was one that became an issue for then teammate Luke Schenn. Yet at the beginning of his NHL career, Phaneuf willingly engaged with then-Devils tough guy David Clarkson. So the jury’s out on that one.
It could be his demeanour. Phaneuf, as the captain and public voice of the most scrutinised club in the league, is not blessed with any particular likeability when it comes to media engagements. His answers are at best wooden and at worst rather aloof.
Could it be his beautiful actress wife? Well, maybe. But this isn’t a gossip column and hopefully the players polled have more depth than that. Oh wait, the Sochi gay-rights thing. Never mind.
It doesn’t add up. Phaneuf was, for the most part, one of Toronto’s most reliable players on the ice, rarely producing the turnovers that often decorated the Leafs’ season and cutting down his tendency to throw himself out of position to make the big hit.
On the other hand, questions continue to abound over his leadership skills with the emergence of the engaging, better-looking (it is a factor, unfortunately) and charismatic Joffrey Lupul as another leader of the group. But let’s remember that the captaincy of the Toronto Maple Leafs was thrust into his hands without the player doing a lot to earn it.
Arriving in a ludicrously one-sided trade from a Calgary club that appeared to see him as personality unsuited to a veteran-loaded dressing room, he was hailed as the face of Brian Burke’s revolution when he may not have been ready for it. In that respect you could argue that Phaneuf has actually done rather well – he was, in part, cursed by the expectations produced by the stellar 20-goal season in 2005-06.
Last season’s 28 points in 48 games was a record on pace for one of his finest NHL seasons to date. It’s not to be sniffed at.
ESPN’s poll is littered with a mixture shrewd observations (Steen) and disturbing prejudices (Sochi gay rights). The attitude towards Phaneuf is just rather outdated.