No one should be surprised that Dion Phaneuf is no longer the same player he once was, least of all the Los Angeles Kings.
After having acquired the defenseman in decline before the 2018 trade deadline, the Kings seem no longer willing to give Phaneuf, who had been healthy-scratched down the stretch, another chance. Even as the Kings seem prepared to trade or buy out Phaneuf, maybe they should at least give it a second thought.
Phaneuf for Gaborik
After all, the Kings should have known what they were getting into. Maybe not to the degree Phaneuf has declined with a mere six points scored in 2018-19 (literally a tenth of the career-high 60 he once scored). However, they did give up the ill-advised seven-year, $34.125 million deal to which they signed Marian Gaborik, who didn’t even play this past season, in exchange. Gaborik hasn’t been relevant since a year into it.
So, the Kings effectively gave up trash for trash and now they’re confused as to why their return is stinking up the joint? Of course, general manager Rob Blake has a responsibility to explore all options to improve his club and ridding himself of Phaneuf’s contract is one conceivable way to make that happen. If Blake does, it would most likely mean taking on yet another bad contract in exchange or sustaining cap hits ranging between $1.417 and $5.417 million between next season and 2023-2024.
Needless to say, the options themselves range from less-than-ideal (keeping Phaneuf in the fold) to foolhardy (sustaining a $5.417 million cap hit in 2020-21 for buying him out). No one is suggesting Phaneuf can rediscover the game that effectively made him an overnight sensation as a rookie in 2005-06, though. However, the Kings can’t be that desperate for cap space with a projected $11 million left for next season and Adrian Kempe being the only “impact” free agent to re-sign this summer.
Phaneuf vs. Brown
All due respect to Phaneuf, especially with regard to the trash comment above, it was more in reference to his seven-year, $49 million contract. However, even in his prime his value as a hard-hitting, offensive defenseman was seen as dubious at best (both by fans and Phaneuf’s peers). There’s still some hope.
Following the resurgence of Dustin Brown, who was taken in the same 2003 NHL Entry Draft, over the last two seasons, maybe Phaneuf can become a valuable contributor once again. I mean, what’s the alternative? Hope another defenseman in the system tags in and becomes what they envisioned Phaneuf would be when they first acquired him, i.e., not all that impressive, but slightly better than he played last season?
The Kings’ Defense Without Phaneuf
I mean, thankfully the Kings had the good sense not to try to bring Slava Voynov back. Still, new-head coach Todd McLellan has his work cut out for him getting the most out of a defense corps that saw Jake Muzzin traded away and now has an average of 36 games of NHL experience among all remaining defensemen who suited up for the Kings last season not named Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez or Derek Forbort.
Doughty’s track record aside, that’s not exactly a recipe for success. That’s especially true when none of Kurtis MacDermid, Daniel Brickley, Paul Ladue, Matt Roy and Sean Walker really have the pedigree of NHL game-breaking defensemen. Top defensive prospect Mikey Anderson just signed an entry-level deal, but there are no guarantees he’s in the Kings’ immediate plans. Even if the 20-year-old is, wouldn’t it make sense to hold onto the team’s elder statesman on the back-end to help him or youngsters like Sean Durzi and Kale Clague develop? That’s Phaneuf at age 34.
At the very least, Phaneuf can eat up minutes on what should be a rebuilding team. The Kings just finished second to last in the standings, after all. That is the most realistic goal moving forward. If Phaneuf is that bad that he’s worthy of being bought out by a second-to-last-place team, he’s worthy of helping them continue to lose.
A Quick Organizational Turnaround?
Yes, the Kings need to improve the blue line after they allowed 3.16 goals per game last season, especially with Jonathan Quick and the $5.8 million over each of the four years left on his deal unlikely to go anywhere. However, that’s what truly encapsulates what ails the Kings.
It isn’t just that Quick’s injury history is rapidly increasing in size at age 33. It isn’t just that he’s coming off a season in which he was limited to 46 games, in which he compiled a miserable 16-23-7 record with a 3.38 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage (while backups Jack Campbell and Cal Petersen were relatively stellar in comparison). It’s that the Kings are filled to the brim with bad contracts.
Phaneuf makes for an easy scapegoat, but the Kings also have Quick’s contract along with Ilya Kovalchuk’s, which Blake himself awarded to the Russian forward. Up until recently, the Brown deal was seen in a similar vein.
Add in the $1.57 million recapture penalty left over from the Mike Richards contract the Kings took over from the Philadelphia Flyers and an argument can be made that the problem is systemic, but more so for the Kings. Every team has bad contracts, but none of the final four teams in this year’s playoffs have a single contract with a cap hit of $10 million or over. The Kings have two: Doughty and Anze Kopitar.
Ultimately, Phaneuf is more of a symptom than the actual problem here. Buying out Phaneuf would be a short-term solution, with repercussions that would last two seasons beyond the expiry of his contract in 2021. Changes need to be made this offseason by the Kings, but more with regard to their approach to handing out contracts than buying out individual ones.
What’s done is done. Yes, the Kings have won multiple Stanley Cups in the recent past following this approach, but they have to lose now in order to build up the team properly and win some more. Phaneuf can still help out in both cases, even if it’s indirectly with regard to the latter.