With his red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs sitting atop the Northeast division and just three points back of Pittsburgh for top spot in the East (with three games in hand!), head coach Ron Wilson decided now was an okay time to talk up his captain, Dion Phaneuf.
“Personally I think by a country mile he’s the best defenseman in the league. It’s not even close right now,” Wilson said following a 4-3 win over the Penguins. “I think he’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s comfortable being the captain, he’s healthy and I think without taking away from his play, the way Carl Gunnarsson’s played has made Dion’s job a lot easier. It’s just freed up Dion to play as best as I’ve ever seen him.”
And you know what? Wilson might be right. Phaneuf could be the NHL’s best. He leads all Leafs in assists (nine), plus/minus (+7) and time on ice per game (26:34) and is third amongst all NHL defensemen in points (11). He also captains one of the top-three teams in the league. What other defensemen boast that kind of resume?
There’s only one that comes close: Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang. And he comes very close. Which is why Wilson’s “by a country mile” comment doesn’t work.
Letang’s been an absolute horse for the Pens, putting up 10 assists in 11 games while averaging over 26 minutes a night. And for as good as Phaneuf’s been in carrying the Leafs, he’s been aided by Phil Kessel (the league’s leading goalscorer) and Joffrey Lupul, who’s on pace for a career-high 90 points. Letang hasn’t had nearly the support thanks to injuries suffered by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Zbynek Michalek and Tyler Kennedy, yet the Pens are still off to an impressive start.
So sure, Phaneuf might be the league’s best. But it’s not like he’s squinting at Letang in his rear-view.