There’s been a lot of talk in the past few days about the contract negotiations to retain Dion Phaneuf.
The 28-year-old captain of the Maple Leafs will have his contract expire this off season. And while Phaneuf has had his critics in Toronto, the Leafs are in no position to turn him away.
Early reports see Phaneuf signing for around $7-million to $8-million a year, for seven or eight years. A lot of people may not be happy at that number.
But for argument’s sake, here’s some current defensemen who are set to be unrestricted free agents this year who are even remotely comparable.
Andrei Markov and Andrew MacDonald both average slightly more ice time than Phaneuf this season. Matt Niskanen is tied with Phaneuf at +11 (nobody is above that and a UFA). Only Dan Boyle, Niskanen, Andre Benoit, Derek Morris, Marek Zidlicky and Markov have more points.
It should be noted that only Niskanen, Benoit and MacDonald are under 30.
Simply put, Phaneuf isn’t going anywhere. The chances of players like Niskanen and MacDonald even being available in July is fairly low.
To those who aren’t happy committing up to $8-million a year for the better part of a decade for Phaneuf, here’s all you need to know on why Toronto has to make this deal.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have only dressed seven different defencemen in 24 games this year, so it’s fair to say that their defensive core is fairly set. There is however a very large problem lingering in the background. How many of them will even be here next season?
Of those seven defencemen exactly two are signed for next year. Carl Gunnarson has two years left on his deal at $3.15-million per and Morgan Rielly has two years left on his entry level deal of $894,167. So in two signed defencemen they have $4-million invested.
With the assumption that Phaneuf is signed before the season ends, that brings the Leafs to three signed defensemen.
Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson will both be restricted free agents. In Franson’s case, he has one year left before he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency, so you have to believe the Leafs will be offering a multi-year deal. Franson makes $2-million a year and will probably be looking for a raise. He was tied for 6th last year in points by a defencemen with 29 and is currently tied for 18th with 12 points in 24 games this year.
For Gardiner he too will be looking for a raise but probably not a substantial one. With only three years used of eligibility when this season is over, Gardiner would have another four years before he would become an unrestricted free agent. It’s likely the Leafs will offer him a ‘bridge’ contract, probably for three years so that they still control his rights with a better idea of what he’s capable of.
That leaves Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser as unrestricted free agents.
Fraser and Ranger both come cheap. Ranger was signed for $1-million and will be hard pressed to find much more than that on the open market. Fraser signed for $1.275-million, and I believe it would be difficult to find another team willing to pay even that.
If either or both walk away this summer, the Maple Leafs do have some depth. TJ Brennan has been electric for the Marlies and has 40 NHL games worth of experience. Andrew MacWilliam looked promising during training camp and plays a physical defensive style. Stuart Percy also looks like a promising prospect. The Leafs also have Korbinian Holzer and John Michael-Liles playing for the Marlies and the ability to end a cheap replacement via free agency or trade.
For the long term foreseeable future, while there are no guarantees it appears a lock that the Leafs defensive core will include Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarson and Morgan Rielly for years to come. One of Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson is likely to stick around. The rest will be filled in by prospects, signings, or trades.
Now imagine that core without Dion Phaneuf.
That means more of Mark Fraser, who has looked more and more like an AHL defencemen. That means more of Jake Gardiner, who while promising is still capable of bonehead mistakes. That means more of Paul Ranger, or Korbinian Holzer, or an NHL rookie.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are built to contend for the next few years, but aren’t set up to be able to wait maybe 5 years for defensive prospects to fully develop. You don’t want to be bringing in more young defensemen when every other defencemen other than Phaneuf that’s played this year has less than 300 career NHL games.
So like it or not, Dion Phaneuf is going to reside in Toronto – because the Maple Leafs really don’t have any other choice.