Dion Phaneuf’s time in Toronto has seen its share of controversies, but it’s also been highlighted by a number of successes. His offensive numbers have returned to respectability; he was named the 18th captain of hockey’s greatest franchise; and he led the team to its first playoff appearance in eight years.
At the same time, however, he’ll likely never live down his role in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ historic collapse to the Boston Bruins during last year’s surprise playoff run. An ill-timed decision by Phaneuf to pinch in overtime cost the Leafs Game 4 of the series and like the rest of the defence, he couldn’t clear a puck to save his life towards the end of Game 7.
I’m mentioning all this because there’s a very good chance Phaneuf may find himself playing elsewhere in 2014-2015. He becomes a free agent at the end of the current season and it’s unclear if the Leafs want him back or how he would fit on the team as general manager Dave Nonis continues to reshape it.
For Phaneuf’s part, it’s entirely clear where he wants to play: Toronto. The captain has already publicly expressed his interest to stay and he’s willing to begin work on a new contract right away - a stance that sets him apart from fellow looming free agent Phil Kessel, who doesn’t want to undergo the distraction of contract negotiations during the season.
It might be hard to attach a specific value on Phaneuf in Toronto – the team has a number of young, capable and offensively gifted defencemen (e.g. Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Reilly, etc.) who could potentially fill his role – but he’s certain to command a small fortune from other teams on the open market. Moreover, other teams may have more cap space than the Leafs to reward Phaneuf so if he really wants to stay in Toronto, a pay cut of some magnitude seems inevitable.
Some people might object at this point that Phaneuf’s not the greatest defenceman as reflected in his +/-. There’s no denying the fact that he’s never finished a season in the positive wearing the Blue & White, but this ignores the competing fact that he carries a heavy workload. He’s regularly pitted against the league’s top players – the Sidney Crosbys and Eric Staals of the hockey world – while Mark Fraser and Franson – who both look comparatively better in this department – enjoy the benefit of playing against lesser players.
Phaneuf also logs a ton of ice time and puts up enough points to justify a high paycheque – he finished 11th overall for ice time and 10th overall for points among defencemen last season – which cannot be easily replaced.
He also provides a strong presence on the ice – a presence that shouldn’t be discounted. If Phaneuf catches you in his sights, prepare for impact.
A few days ago I wrote about how Nazem Kadri is essentially the author of his own fate in Toronto. The same cannot be said for Phaneuf though I’m sure he wishes the opposite was true.
From my perspective, there’s nothing to lose by welcoming Phaneuf back at the right price. This might mean a significant pay cut for him, but there’s no equivalent in the hockey world to leading the Leafs in battle.
It’s worth the sacrifice - any sacrifice.
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