The Toronto Maple Leafs and captain Dion Phaneuf have always been somewhat of an uneasy alliance. The Edmonton, Alberta, native is the de facto No. 1 defenceman for the team, but many observers do not view him as one of the game's elite defenders.
Phaneuf's contract is massive. In this salary-cap era, at seven years and $49 million, the Leafs would be trading not just a player, but his contract.
The deal does not expire until the end of the 2020-21 season.
TSN hockey insider Darren Dreger confirmed in May that while the Leafs are not actively shopping Phaneuf, they are open to offers. This is not a huge surprise, though, as there are very few untouchable players in the NHL.
This lack of untouchability is not unique to this era. Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, was traded. Enough said.
The issue for the Leafs is, if management trades the captain, can the team replace Phaneuf?
We're into murky waters here. Phaneuf has been a vital piece for the Leafs over the past few seasons. He logs a lot of minutes in Toronto, plays against the other team's best forwards and, regardless of whether you love him or hate him, puts up solid offensive numbers.
There have been rumblings, most recently reported by Howard Berger, that the Leafs may indeed be considering a deal with Florida. It would send Phaneuf there as part of a package and land the Leafs the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.
This scenario would see the Leafs draft defensive standout Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts. Ekblad brings a lot to the table, but this solution would mean a carving up of Phaneuf's minutes by committee.
That is the biggest issue with trading Phaneuf. No one on the Leafs appears ready to play these top minutes against the other team's top lines.
The trade would need to involve bringing someone back to the Leafs or it would have to be a salary dump, followed by the Leafs signing a free agent.
Conversely, they could try to land another No. 1 defender from another team, but the larger issue is that the Leafs have a lot of other players to sign. The salary cap presents ongoing challenges to the organization.
Ultimately, the Leafs must decide whether or not Phaneuf forms part of the core. He's a physical, 6'3" defenceman who weighs in well over 200 pounds.
He had 31 points last year despite playing a taxing defensive role. He also posted 144 penalty minutes. No other Leaf defender has his blend of skill, snarl and defensive abilities.
He was a plus-five defender on a team that was overmatched on many nights by the opposing team's forwards. While his five-on-five Corsi percentage of 40.8 is not great, his quality of competition percentage of 30.1 ranked fourth in the league.
There are other intangibles that people outside the dressing room cannot know. Whether or not Phaneuf is great in the room and a positive influence on the team is known only by teammates, coaches and management.
This could factor into the final decision.
The bottom line is that his contract limits the club in many ways financially and does include a limited no-movement clause.
In other words, Phaneuf cannot be dumped just anywhere.
Management has to make deals to improve the hockey club and not simply placate an element of the fanbase. If Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and other prospects continue to develop, a deal could make sense as Phaneuf moves into his early 30s.
Until then, unless someone is willing to send the Leafs a suitable replacement for Phaneuf in a trade, the Leafs would not be a better squad without him.
At this point in time, trading Phaneuf does not seem to be a good course of action for the young Leafs.
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