By now, you’ve heard the argument for re-signing Dion Phaneuf.
It goes something like this: The Toronto Maple Leafs captain plays the team’s biggest, most difficult minutes, produces a lot of offence (at least prior to this season) and is the best player on a back end badly in need of talent.
He does it all – even if the debate rages on in the fan base over just how well he fits the bill as a No. 1 defenceman and team leader.
The argument against giving Phaneuf the seven year, $49-million deal? It’s harder to make.
But here’s a stab at it.
The biggest concern these days with Phaneuf is that he’s the most high profile example of a huge problem for his team. If you believe the Leafs being filled in on the shot clock and spending a lot of time in their own end is a fatal flaw, then you have to acknowledge, too, that Phaneuf is a contributor to that issue.
Consider, just as an example, that among all regular NHL defencemen that have played at least 20 games this season, Phaneuf is third last in the possession stat Corsi, ahead of only Doug Murray and Ladislav Smid.
After posting a 41.7 per cent rating a year ago, Phaneuf is down to 40.2 per cent today, which essentially means that 60 per cent of the shot attempts when he’s on the ice are against the Leafs.
Not all of that decline is on Phaneuf obviously. The role that coach Randy Carlyle uses him in is very difficult and made all the more difficult by the Leafs lack of other options to play a shutdown role.
Possession is also heavily influenced by the team around you, but it’s at least a little troubling that Phaneuf’s numbers are worse than his teammates, even in that heavy role. Other defencemen making $7-million (or soon to be doing so) like Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith and PK Subban are pushing the puck in the right direction more than their teammates and far more than Phaneuf has done under Carlyle the last 89 games.
(The curious thing is this has really only become a pronounced issue under Carlyle, which suggests it’s a problem that can be fixed and, again, isn’t entirely of Phaneuf’s doing.)
But it’s also part of a larger issue with this team in that Phaneuf is miscast as this defensive zone starting, heavy lifting shutdown type, especially given how dangerous he can be offensively.
And all those points are a large part of what landed him that much money, production that’s clearly being stifled by the fact he’s asked to do so much elsewhere.
The ideal solution here would be to airlift in another top end blueliner and allow Phaneuf to play more to his strengths, making the power play more of a focus and giving him more offensive zone starts while subtracting on the penalty kill and shutdown duties.
Is that doable with Phaneuf now making No. 1 money and nothing resembling that type of player in free agency?
Probably not. But something has to change on the Leafs blueline for this team to progress from mediocrity to something more.
Which brings us to why signing this contract was the right move, despite the red flags.
The most telling part of Nonis’s very public negotiations with Phaneuf the past few weeks was just how long the discussion over a no-movement and no-trade clause took. Nonis wasn’t willing to go to a full no-move, which left the talk centring on how many teams Phaneuf could stipulate he wouldn’t allow himself to be traded to. (They settled on something in the double digits.)
Many of the questions for the Leafs GM at the presser on Tuesday, meanwhile, were about locking up all of his core players long-term, to which he eventually responded that the core was all “moveable” given those players will have value.
“It’s not locked in stone for eight years that these guys are all going to be here,” Nonis said. “We signed them because we believe they’re part of a winning team and they can be part of something. But it doesn’t mean that we’re locked into anybody.
“One of the areas that we’ve been fairly adamant about is the ability to have tradable players. We don’t have a player on a team that has a full no-movement. I don’t believe in them. You need to have the ability to move a player.
“That’s why you were waiting for a while.”
The bottom line here is that Phaneuf is worth more signed long term than as a rental player, even if he is overpaid. The cap is going up dramatically in the next two years and Nonis can always eat a little salary and move him to a contender if things go pear-shaped in the standings, as top four defencemen are always in demand, no matter what their foibles.
But if the Leafs are going to win more games with Phaneuf and be something more than what they currently are, he is going to need a whole lot more help – from Nonis, Carlyle and his teammates.
And there are still going to have to be some creative solutions to improving the blueline given all the money they’ve thrown around on needless parts like David Clarkson.
So, no, the Leafs current issues aren’t all on Phaneuf – not by a longshot. But with the Leafs winning only four of their last 27 games in regulation and playing an absolutely brutal possession game, the captain isn’t blameless, either.
After all, he plays the team’s biggest, most difficult minutes.
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