For the first time in three years, the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to experience life without Dion Phaneuf.
The last time was early in the 2010-11 season, when Phaneuf missed 16 games with a leg injury. Toronto went 5-8-3 without him, and he’s been healthy ever since.
But Phaneuf will be suspended for Wednesday’s home game versus Los Angeles and Thursday’s visit to St. Louis — two pretty tough opponents for a team with just a pair of regulation wins (over the basement-dwelling Sabres and Islanders) in its last 17 contests.
How will the Leafs fare without their top d-man this time around?
Those who argue they’ll miss him a lot will point out that no Leaf has played more minutes than Phaneuf this season. In fact, his 24:13 average ice time is more than three minutes higher than any other Toronto blue-liner.
And it’s not just the number of minutes, it’s the type. Based on one measure, he’s been deployed against the toughest competition of any regular defenseman in the NHL.
On the other hand, Phaneuf’s occasional (or frequent, depending who you ask) defensive gaffe — like the one in Game 4 of the Leafs’ first-round series versus Boston — has the tendency to bring out the knives in a big way.
Looming over all of this? Phaneuf is a pending unrestricted free agent who just saw teammate Phil Kessel sign an eight-year, $64 million extension.
So for the Leafs, as much as they disagreed with the suspension, if there’s a bright side to his two-game ban, at least they’re about to get a brief glimpse at how they’d look without him.
Because that remains an option for the future.