What began as an ordinary winter day ended up flooring the hockey world and igniting excitement in an otherwise dismal season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. January 31, 2010 was the day that the Toronto Maple Leafs shocked the hockey world by making two trades. The first was acquiring all-star defenceman Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames along with depth forward Fredrik Sjostrom and promising defence prospect Keith Aulie for what basically amounted to spare parts: Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers, and Ian White. The other, dumping Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala’s contracts on the Anaheim Ducks for their starting goalie for a short time, Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Although Burke made many popular trades that the Leafs won in the long-run, none were as important as the Phaneuf trade.
At the time of the trade, Toronto’s best defenceman was Tomas Kaberle, a slick, puck-moving offensive defenseman. However, he was aging and a pending unrestricted free agent at the end of the next season. He was the past and at the time, the present of the team, but not the future.
Enter Dion Phaneuf. The ninth overall pick in the deep 2003 entry draft brought a combination of skills to the Toronto blueline that Leafs fans had not seen in years. A big, physical defenceman with sound two-way ability and a hard shot. He had many accomplishments up to that point in his career. He had played and won gold for Canada at the World Juniors, was runner up to Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in the Calder Trophy race in 2005-06, and was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2006-07. After a decent finish to the season, He was named Captain of the Leafs prior to the 2010-11 season.
Now, Leafs fans love to have a scapegoat, and whether by coincidence or not, they always seem to be defencemen. Aki Berg, Bryan McCabe, and Mike Komisarek are just some of the players that have had to bare an unfair amount of blame for the struggles of the team. When talking to any Leafs fan about Phaneuf, it is clear that he is becoming the next scapegoat for the team. Fans focus on the negative, like his ill-advised pinch against the Boston Bruins in last year’s playoffs that resulted in the game winning goal by the Bruins. However, one moment does not define an entire career, and even the best defencemen make mistakes.
By analyzing the numbers, it is obvious that Phaneuf is the Leafs best defenceman and has been since he has arrived. Since his first full season with the team in 2010-11, Phaneuf has led his team in Time On Ice per Game, Power Play Time On Ice per Game, and Shorthanded Time On Ice per Game. This season he again leads in all Categories, with a TOI/G of 24:20, PPTOI/G of 3:34, and a SHTOI/G of 3:27 (all stats via nhl.com).
All of these numbers fall within the top 20 in the league for defenceman. These numbers show that his coach trusts him in all situations and that he is the defenceman most capable of handling the tough assignments on the team.
It will be expensive to retain Dion Phaneuf. His current cap hit is $6.5 million, and according to some sources (such as Darren Dreger of TSN) he is unwilling to accept anything less than that amount under his next contract. He will also likely seek a maximum eight year term. If the Leafs let their captain reach free agency, however, he will almost assuredly get $7 million plus. Many fans believe that Phaneuf is overpaid at his current amount, and the price to retain him combined with the promising young talent on the blueline on the team and in the pipeline, it seems foolish to invest in Phaneuf long-term.
Despite these beliefs, I think it is imperative that Phaneuf is retained by the Leafs. While Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, and Stuart Percy, among others, show much potential and are the future of the team, it is common knowledge it takes defencemen longer to develop. If Phaneuf were to leave, these young defencemen would be in over their head trying to fill his large shoes, and Toronto’s progress as a team and proximity to winning will be set back. It would be better both for the short-term and long-term success of the team, to resign Phaneuf. He is a veteran defenceman who can mentor and provide leadership to these young defencemen and the entire team. If the Leafs want to win in the near future, they would be wise to invest in their captain, or have the progress of their team stall, and winning a Stanley Cup remaining a dream.
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