ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Dion Phaneuf's contract extension wasn't a surprise, thanks in part to HBO's "24/7" reality series.
"It was a little bit of a bad-kept secret at the end of it," the Toronto Maple Leafs captain said Tuesday after the new agreement was announced.
That Phaneuf was worth US$49 million over seven years to the Leafs was also no secret. The team's No. 1 defenceman plays every situation for Toronto, which makes him arguably the most irreplaceable player on the roster.
"He plays some pretty tough minutes, and his plus-minus has gone in the right direction playing those minutes, against the best players, starting in his own end, most defensive zone faceoffs, all those things," general manager Dave Nonis said. "And he's done that, and he's welcomed it, I think he's improved at it."
Phaneuf has a long way to go before he's considered among the elite captains in franchise history, but the 28-year-old Edmonton native fits the team's current needs perfectly.
No one on the Leafs plays more minutes (24:21 a game), and his four goals are the most on the blue-line. He plays more on the power play than anyone else and more on the penalty kill than anyone except for defensive centre Jay McClement.
"He plays very big minutes against teams' top lines," defenceman Cody Franson said. "There's not a ton of people that can do what he does. He's a big part of our team."
Phaneuf is also not the same player the Leafs acquired from the Calgary Flames in early 2010.
"I definitely feel that my game has grown with experience and playing in the league," said Phaneuf, who was understandably all smiles at his Michigan Stadium news conference on the day of Winter Classic practices. "You grow as a player, and I've learned a lot of things over my time since I've started, and I feel I'm a better player today than I definitely was when I started and in my time in Calgary, that's for sure."
Phaneuf has developed into someone Nonis considers a "pillar" the Leafs can build around. So much of what they do on the ice is built around him, and if he were to get injured there isn't a defenceman who possesses the ability to fill his skates.
But Nonis insisted that wasn't the reason the Leafs ponied up and signed Phaneuf, who would have been an unrestricted free agent July 1.
"We signed Dion to this deal because he deserved it," Nonis said. "He's going to play at this level or beyond, I feel, for seven years, again, maybe beyond that. It's not that you don't have anyone to replace Dion, it's that he's done enough to prove to us that he is a player that is near the top of the league in terms of how he stacks up against the top defencemen. ...
"It's not that we don't have anyone to replace him. I think if that's why we were signing him, we'd be making a mistake."
On the ice, Phaneuf makes mistakes. He has an element to his game that Nonis acknowledged that includes taking chances to jump up in the play or lay a hit on an opponent.
Part of that is what has made Phaneuf such a polarizing player in the eyes of fans. He has shown plenty of flaws, but ultimately he's a big, minute-logging defenceman who provides a mix of offence (four goals, 11 assists) and physicality.
"Dion's always going to have a little bit of risk to his game, but I believe he's lowered that," Nonis said. "He's taken less big chances, less risky pinches, he still likes the big hit but he's not running at people the way he did early on. All those things are just a function of maturity."
Phaneuf has matured into not just a better defenceman but a better leader. This is his fourth season as captain.
"I've definitely grown into the role, and I've learned a lot," Phaneuf said. "I'd be lying if I sat up here and said I can't. I'm very comfortable in the role."
Coach Randy Carlyle inherited Phaneuf as his captain when he took over for the fired Ron Wilson. He understood the pressure Phaneuf took on in wearing the "C" in Toronto and has noticed an evolution in his leadership.
"I think Dion has softened his approach not only the way he brings himself to the rink day-in and day-out, but I think to his teammates and everybody around him he's become much more accommodating," Carlyle said.
The Leafs were comfortable enough with Phaneuf in the captain's role that they rewarded him handsomely with this deal. Phaneuf will make US$8 million in each of the first two seasons, then $7.5 million, $7 million, $6.5 million, $6.5 million and then $5.5 million in 2020-21.
Nonis said he's not concerned about the length of the deal.
"Dion was going to get seven years regardless. If we weren't going to pay him, he's going to get it (in free agency)," Nonis said. "I think he'll play beyond the term of his contract. He's not in his 30s. He's in his 20s. His game is rounding out and it's getting better. I don't think there's any reason why he can't play the seven years and then look for another contract."
There's no guarantee Phaneuf plays the entire contract with the Leafs, given that he has only a limited no-trade clause. Nonis doesn't believe in giving players full no-movement clauses, so Phaneuf didn't get one.
None of the players Toronto has signed long-term—forwards Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, David Clarkson, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul—have full no-trade clauses in their contracts.
"The core is always going to be somewhat movable," Nonis said. "It's not locked in stone for eight years that these guys are all going to be here. We signed them because we believe they're part of a winning team, that they can be part of something, but it doesn't mean that we're locked into anybody."
The Leafs aren't locked into Phaneuf, but this deal represents a major commitment, even with the salary cap expected to rise above $71 million next year and continue to increase.
Phaneuf locked himself in rather than test the unrestricted-free-agent market, and though he thought about that possibility, he called this an easy decision.
"I really believe that we're building something special," he said. "That is a very big decision, and one that I'm very happy with in the way that I chose to go."
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno