Hearing the name of Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf sprout up in trade rumors late Sunday was a shock only to Toronto fans who’ve been in a deep slumber since the team fell apart at the tail end of the regular season. With very few exceptions – goalie Jonathan Bernier; defenseman Morgan Rielly; forwards James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel – virtually no one on the Leafs’ roster is considered untouchable.
But if the Leafs are seriously considering trading Phaneuf before his limited no-trade clause kicks in at the start of next season, they’d better be sure they’ve got people who can eat up the team-best 23:33 of ice time he averaged for them in 2013-14. It’s easy to drive someone you don’t like to the airport for a one-way flight out of town if you’re not concerned about who will walk through the arrivals gate as his replacement.
If ever there was a “be careful what you wish for” scenario, this is it.
By now, most Leafs fans, as well as the rest of the NHL, understand what Phaneuf isn’t. He’s not a Norris Trophy contender. He can’t produce offense like Erik Karlsson can. He’s not as physical as Zdeno Chara. He doesn’t play the type of nearly flawless positional game that Duncan Keith or Marc-Edouard Vlasic does. But last season, Phaneuf was tied with Jake Gardiner as Toronto’s second-best point-producing defenseman (31 points); he was second on the team in hits (227) and blocked shots (156), first on the team in average power play time on ice (3:17) and third in penalty kill time on ice (2:49). As an all-around talent, he's the Leafs' best defenseman.
Now, Toronto GM Dave Nonis and president Brendan Shanahan may see a way to replace Phaneuf’s contributions by committee, but if they can’t find that on the trade market, there’s no urgency to move Phaneuf this summer. He’s got a no-trade clause that kicks in at the beginning of the 2014-15 campaign, but that clause is limited (the 29-year-old can at the start of each season submit a list of 10 teams to which he’d accept a deal) and it isn’t as if they can’t revisit a possible Phaneuf trade early next season if things aren't working out. What, you think Phaneuf will want to stay here at all costs if the franchise continues struggling? Get real. He'll be happy to submit that list if the heat on him ratchets up.
In addition, should a true Stanley Cup contender wind up losing a minute-munching blueliner early next year, Phaneuf’s trade value will rise dramatically. Right now, there’s a feeling Toronto would have to eat some of the money on his seven-year, $49-million contract extension, but that’s nonsense. Phaneuf received what the market would bear – let us not forget Calgary’s Dennis Wideman is in Year 3 of a five-year, $26.25-million deal – and the salary cap continues to rise. If someone wants to acquire him, it’s not asking too much to accept his entire contract. And if no team is interested in paying full freight for Phaneuf, you keep him. It’s that simple. Phaneuf clearly is not the ideal top-pairing defenseman for a Cup frontrunner, but until Rielly matures into that role in the coming years, he’s the best the Leafs have right now.
Trading Phaneuf just for the sake of trading him would make a lot of Leafs fans feel great for a week or two. But by the time the ’14-15 campaign began, those same celebrating fans would be squealing with anger over an already-shaky defense corps needlessly depleted.
So don't get overly excited about Phaneuf moving on just yet. It may eventually happen, but it will have to make sense as a hockey move, not a hasty knee-jerk over a player who's not easy to make an emotional investment in.