Why Toronto Maple Leafs Should Explore Trade Options for Dion Phaneuf

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Why Toronto Maple Leafs Should Explore Trade Options for Dion Phaneuf
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The Toronto Maple Leafs made a splash in free agency and the trade market this summer, but the team's biggest moves could be on the horizon.

The list of Leafs with one or two years left on their current contract is a long one, which will give general manager Dave Nonis plenty of difficult decisions to make prior to next year's trade deadline.

According to TSN's Darren Dreger, one of those players who's been involved in trade rumors since the end of the regular season is Leafs captain and top defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

Why would Toronto trade Phaneuf?

Well, the 28-year-old has only one year left on his contract before he's eligible for unrestricted free-agent status.

Phaneuf's contract has a $6.5 million cap hit, per CapGeek, and it's unlikely that his next deal will have a smaller cap hit when there are so many teams in need of a top-pairing defenseman. On the open market, he would likely be a $7 million per-year player as a top-tier defenseman in his prime.

If Phaneuf won't take a pay cut, should he be traded?

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Re-signing Phaneuf to a long-term deal worth $6.5 million or more per season doesn't make sense for Toronto when you take into account the team's stable of quality young defensemen, the number of Leafs who need new contracts in the near future and the fact that he's not someone who deserves No. 1 defenseman money.

Even in the likely event that the salary-cap ceiling ($64.3 million for 2013-14) goes up significantly after next year, the Leafs still need to be financially responsible to keep their core intact long term. Here's a list of important players with contracts expiring over the next two years:

Player Age Position Contract (Term, Cap Hit) FA Status
James Reimer 25 Goalie 1 year, $1.8 million RFA in '14
Jonathan Bernier 25 Goalie 2 years, $2.9 million RFA in '15
Jake Gardiner 23 Defense 1 year, $1,12 million RFA in '14
Mark Fraser 26 Defense 1 year, $1.275 million UFA in '14
Nikolai Kulemin 27 Right Wing 1 year, $2.8 million UFA in '14
Phil Kessel 25 Right Wing 1 year, $5.4 million UFA in '14
Dave Bolland 27 Center 1 year $3.375 million UFA in '14

Kessel is the most notable player on this list as one of the league's best goal scorers. If Nonis decides to give one expensive, long-term contract to Kessel or Phaneuf before next summer, the 25-year-old winger should receive it. He's younger than the captain, and Toronto doesn't have an NHL forward or prospect capable of replacing Kessel's scoring next year or in the immediate future.

Despite his ability to excel offensively with a powerful shot from the point and good puck-moving skills, Phaneuf is often a liability in his own end.

For starters, he's turnover prone. He led all NHL players with 53 giveaways last season and too many times he goes after the big hit instead of being properly positioned and making the responsible defensive play. A good example of this happened on the game-winning goal in Game 4 of the Leafs' first-round series vs. Boston last year.

During the Leafs' epic collapse in Round 1, when they became the first team to surrender a three-goal lead in the third period of a Game 7, Phaneuf's poor play in front of the net contributed to the Bruins' final two goals in regulation. He finished the playoffs with 15 giveaways, one takeaway, three points and a minus-six rating in seven games.

Many of the young defenseman and prospects Toronto has in its system are offensive-minded players, including Jake Gardiner, Matt Finn and Morgan Rielly. Toronto should be able to replace the scoring production and skill that Phaneuf provides if he's traded, especially since Gardiner has shown signs of being an elite offensive defenseman.

These young defensemen aren't going to log the minutes or replace the scoring that Phaneuf will give the Leafs next season, but depending on who Toronto acquires if he's traded, it's still quite possible for the team to make the 2014 playoffs without its captain.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Jake Gardinder

Phaneuf would be a great No. 2 defenseman on a championship contender, where he wouldn't be burdened with being a captain for a historic franchise like the Leafs.

He's still a solid two-way player, but overpaying him to re-sign doesn't make sense when the team has other needs that will require cap space to address, plus the fact that the blue-line depth throughout the organization is stronger than it's been in years.

If the Leafs are able to acquire a veteran, stay-at-home defenseman as part of a trade for their captain prior to next season's deadline, moving Phaneuf would be a smart move. Failing to get any quality assets in return for him if he leaves as a free agent next summer would be a disaster for Toronto.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.

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