If you want to get a reaction out of Toronto Maple Leafs fans, simply mention captain Dion Phaneuf. It is rare to find a diehard fan that doesn't have a strong opinion about the Edmonton, Alberta native.
Going back to his junior days with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels, the talented defenseman has rarely played low-event hockey. His style includes some risk-taking in all three zones—confidence in his game has never been an issue.
Phaneuf brings several positives to the Leafs with one of the most important being some great experience at a relatively young age. As of opening night for the 2013-14 season, the Leafs were the fourth-youngest team in the NHL with an average of 26.7 years.
The Leafs are particularly inexperienced at defence, so Phaneuf's 639 games at the age of 28 is undeniably an important element. Phaneuf has been a very durable rearguard at the pro level, and he has played well for Canada internationally at both the junior and men's levels.
He has not been as effective offensively as he was in his first years in the NHL. Basically half of his NHL goals were scored in his first three seasons in Calgary as he notched 54 of his 110 in those seasons.
However, Phaneuf was playing a much more offensive game at that time, and his defensive responsibilities were not nearly what they have been with the Leafs.
While he is not a defensive specialist by any measure, Phaneuf has developed into a very good all-around defender as the Leafs captain. At 6'3" and well over 200 pounds, the former Flame will never be an exceptional skater. But he rarely gets beat wide, and his foot speed is sufficient to shut down opposing team's best players, night after night.
Phaneuf's relative Corsi number has not been great this year at -6.5 but over the course of his career, that number has been superlative in many seasons. Again, Phaneuf has started in the defensive zone about 60 percent of the time, and his quality of competition is very high, shift after shift.
He is currently 42nd in scoring among defensemen with 15 points. Obviously, the Leafs would like to see more points from him.
Ultimately, the Leafs need him to be excellent defensively and merely solid offensively. The inverse would not be a good thing for Toronto.
In some other areas, Phaneuf is one of the better NHL defensemen statistically. He is eighth in the NHL in hits with 102. This is important as he is a very difficult blueliner to play against given this physical brand of hockey.
Also, at plus-13, Phaneuf is tied for 11th in the league among defensemen with Drew Doughty in plus/minus. He is ahead of some elite defenders like Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara. This is on a Leafs team that does not defend well currently.
Ice time is another key indicator for a defenseman in particular. Phaneuf plays more than 24 minutes per game. He averages more than Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall and only seconds less per game than Zdeno Chara and Jay Bouwmeester. In other words, Phaneuf plays big minutes, and those are minutes that would prove very difficult to fill otherwise.
Elite free-agent defenders are very hard to find, and teams are not going to trade their No. 1 or No. 2 rearguards without demanding a top defender in return. In a blockbuster trade, the Leafs would be asked for at least one if not two top-line forwards, a first-round pick and one of their top young defenders.
Phaneuf's best offensive years are likely behind him. But with Morgan Rielly, Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner being offensively minded, slightly better production would be all that is needed from Phaneuf moving forward.
$49 million is a big extension, likely $10 million more than they would like to be paying over the seven-year term. But the alternative is not good for the Leafs. Franson might be on the cusp of being a top-pairing defender, but coach Randy Carlyle does not seem convinced of this.
Their other top defenders are too young to assume this role yet, and their "veterans" are not top-four quality.
Phaneuf is far from perfect, but this is the appropriate move for the Leafs right now. With the salary cap expected to rise to over $70 million next season, this anticipated contract will not be as onerous as it appears under today's cap number.
All stats can be found on nhl.com unless otherwise noted.
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