Toronto Maple Leafs: Making the case to bring back Dion Phaneuf

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 19: Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the San Jose Sharks during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on March 19, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Sharks defeated the Leafs 4-1. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 19: Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the San Jose Sharks during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on March 19, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Sharks defeated the Leafs 4-1. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Kings have officially bought out former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, opening up the possibility of a possible return to the 6ix.

February 9th 2016, the day the Toronto Maple Leafs traded then-captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators, is a moment that will live in the memory of all fans of the team in blue and white.

The move was one of many that were part of the dismantling of a team that had been largely mediocre for far too long and were now burdened by two very costly contracts, though both were attached to players considered to be the ‘face’ of the team.

Just a few months earlier it was Phil Kessel, the other ‘face’, was sent packing to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Phaneuf trade looked to be just one more step towards the path the team would ultimately take in the following three seasons.

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Phaneuf, then approaching 31 years old, was a model professional during his time with the Leafs, leading the team during what can only be described as a truly difficult period.

It was unfair for the Alberta native to bear the brunt of fan dissension, often having to take responsibility for the team’s struggles – despite being one of the best players throughout his time in Canada’s largest city.

With the team trending downwards by 2016, however, it was clear that Phaneuf, despite how important he truly was to the team, couldn’t remain if the club was to truly move forward.

At a cost of $7 million until 2021, it was clear the Toronto Maple Leafs were not willing to keep Phaneuf around and the move to the Senators was one that fans collectively celebrated – and arguably still do to this day.

But there was a sadness behind his departure, an admittance that he had given his heart and soul to the cause and had never truly been rewarded for his efforts while wearing the coveted ‘C’.

During Phaneuf’s near-seven years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club managed to reach the post-season just once, the dreaded and infamous first-round exit to the Boston Bruins in 2013 that appears to still hang over the team to this day.

Phaneuf had some success after leaving Toronto, coming within just one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals with the Senators in 2017, but that would be the closest he would get.

Traded again to the LA Kings, Phaneuf made four playoff appearances in the 2017/18 season but found himself in familiar territory – with his season finishing earlier than he’d like in 2019.

With two more years at $7 million ($1.25 million of which was retained by the Sens in the trade to LA), it was clear that the cap-strapped Kings would need to do something about the veteran blueliner.

With Phaneuf now officially bought out, he will now head to free agency for the first time in his career – but will still be earning good money over the next four years, regardless of where he ends up.

According to CapFriendly, Phaneuf is set to earn $1,416,667 in each of the next four seasons – not bad for a 34-year-old that could reasonably walk away from the game.

If Phaneuf were to retire, no one would blame him and he could go on with his life and look at what he wants to do next -whether that be involved in hockey or some other venture.

If, however, the veteran defenceman still has a fire to play in the NHL then the Toronto Maple Leafs should certainly give him some consideration.

Nikita Zaitsev looks set to leave this summer, leaving Mike Babcock with just three of his top six defencemen from last season – with Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey both UFAs from July 1st.

The Leafs need to address their top four, with a long-term replacement for Hainsey an absolute must, even if just to save Babcock from himself, as well as figuring out whether or not Gardiner can be brought back.

This still leaves questions on the bottom end, with the likes of Igor Ozhiganov, Martin Marincin and Justin Holl some of the names that suited up at the position last season.

Enter Phaneuf.

With the 34-year-old set to earn over $5 million across the next four seasons, it is a reasonable expectation that he could be willing to join an NHL team of a sub $1 million deal for the upcoming season – especially with a team that could be considered a contender.

The Leafs were happy paying Hainsey $3 million in each of the past two seasons, so adding Phaneuf at $1 million for a season may not seem as absurd.

He is nowhere near the player he was when he left Toronto in 2016, but he would be an excellent locker room presence and leader on the ice – limited to a bottom pairing role to help provide the Leafs with some stability.

10 minutes of Phaneuf per game would be more than enough, putting him in situations to succeed and allow the team to play the game they are trying to develop.

Many will question why the team should add Phaneuf when they have Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren tearing it up in the AHL.

The simple reason is they are not quite ready, and their development is better served with top line minutes in the minors with long playoff runs that can help them truly season into the star defencemen the organization is expecting them to become.

With the Leafs finally finding some success in the regular season, reaching the playoffs convincingly in each of their past three seasons, it would be nice to see Phaneuf become a part of a positive time in the organization’s history.

General manager Kyle Dubas is no fool and anything more than $1 million is going to be far too costly for Phaneuf, whose physical style of play has worn his body down at a rapid pace.

But having his presence and leadership around the team could be extremely valuable and having #3 back with the team and being able to enjoy some success while not carrying the heavy weight of the ‘C’ is something he deserves after so many years of loyal service.

Not everyone will agree with this and it’s unlikely that the Leafs and Phaneuf do have a reunion, but it could be a smart decision for both parties in the long-run.

Next. The Leafs could look very different next season. dark

What do you think Leafs Nation? Should the team bring Phaneuf back as a bottom pairing guy with leadership value at a cost of $1 million or less? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!