Maple Leafs Are Allowing Dion Phaneuf to Visit: Is It All It Seems?

In a recent THW Rumors Report, Jim Parsons shared a report from hockey insider Bob McKenzie that former NHL defenseman and Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf is shadowing Brendan Shanahan in the team’s front office and has been for the past week. McKenzie noted that Phaneuf has not retired from the NHL and would like to land a playing position with an NHL club, but for now he seems to be making plans for a future after hockey.

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McKenzie said: “the reason he is in Toronto is simply to get a look at the business of hockey and he reached out to Brendan Shanahan, asked if he could come in, get a feel for what the whole Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment operation off the ice is all about. That’s what he’s been doing.” Good for Phaneuf and for the Maple Leafs.

Is Phaneuf’s Organizational Education All That’s Happening Here?

I have absolutely no hockey insider’s speculations about this point at all; but, is there the smallest chance Phaneuf’s visit to the Maple Leafs might be more than it’s reported to be? When Phaneuf was bought out of the final two seasons of his contract with the Los Angeles Kings on June 15, 2019, and became an unrestricted free agent, he had made it clear that he believed he had hockey left in him and that he could help a team looking to win the Stanley Cup.

Dion Phaneuf, Jakub Vrana
Former Los Angeles Kings’ Dion Phaneuf (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

During the summer, there were rumors that teams had called and expressed interest. In fact, Phaneuf noted at the time, “A couple of teams have already reached out, which is nice. It’s not stressful. I’m excited about another opportunity.”

Phaneuf had a solid NHL career. Recently, he’s not been as strong, however. In 2016-17, Phaneuf had 30 points (9 goals and 21 assists) in 81 games with the Ottawa Senators. In 2017-18, he scored 26 points (6 goals and 20 assists) in 79 games split between the Senators and Kings. However, 2018-19 wasn’t as good. He had a single goal and five assists in 67 games. That obviously rankled him.

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His experience, his size (6-foot-4 and 222 pounds), and his leadership are three reasons he might still be of interest. Indeed, an NHL team’s desperate need might be a fourth reason. It’s not like he’s over the hill. He’s all of 34 years old, which is the exact same age as the Montreal Canadiens’ Shea Weber.

If Ron Hainsey could play with the Maple Leafs last season at 38, it was because, as Babcock noted, “he knew where to stand.” Perhaps Phaneuf’s experience and desire to play could be of value to a desperately needy team. And, doesn’t that sort of sound like the Maple Leafs?

But does Phaneuf have something left in his tank? He thinks so. In fact, he did some self-promotion during the offseason saying, “I’m a bigger defenseman and I still think you see value in that. Look at the team that won this year (St. Louis Blues). They had a lot of big guys back there.”

At the time, he also said he was also out to prove his NHL career low with the Kings last season was a fluke. “One bad year is not going to define me. I know I’ve got lots of hockey left.” That sounds like a guy who wants to retire after a good season rather than a bad season.

Is There Any Logic to the Maple Leafs Signing Phaneuf?

So here’s Phaneuf in Toronto shadowing Maple Leafs president Shanahan. It’s good that Phaneuf is wise enough to know he’s on his last glide or two as an NHL skater, regardless of whether he laces on the skates for another season or not. It’s also good that the team allows him to engage that opportunity.

That said, here are the three deductions that keeps popping into my mind.

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Deduction A: Phaneuf is a former defenseman and Maple Leafs captain who believes he still can play hockey and, as he says, wants to. He’s also in Toronto hanging around leadership within the organization.

Deduction B: The Maple Leafs recent injuries to Jake Muzzin (short-term, it seems) and Morgan Rielly (two months) make them needy for a defenseman.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr)

Deduction C: There’s a chance, considering A and B together that one might deduce that C might occur. That is, there might be a possibility Phaneuf could sign a short-term contract with the team (obviously at league minimum).

What Are the Chances? Should the Maple Leafs Sign Phaneuf?

As I say, I have not a single source to support my logical argument except one: circumstance meeting need. Under normal circumstances, the Maple Leafs would probably not be interested in Phaneuf. However, this is far from a normal situation for two reasons. First, the team’s need for a defenseman is desperate. Second, the team doesn’t have much money to spend so a cheap fix seems the only option.

Granted, as I noted, Phaneuf is 34 years old, has played for 14 seasons, and his career is on the downhill slide. I won’t argue these points. His best seasons are behind him, and his play will continue to decline, especially on offense.

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In the long-term, the Maple Leafs really need right-handed defensemen and Phaneuf is naturally left-handed. However, in the short-term, they need a left-side defenseman. Although Phaneuf has played either side and certainly has the experience to do so, he’s naturally left-handed and that’s his best side.

It’s true: Phaneuf no longer either drives the play or produces offense. For Maple Leafs fans who recall his seasons with the team and are used to seeing him average 30 points per season, he isn’t that player any longer.

Dion Phaneuf #2, Ottawa Senators
Dion Phaneuf, Former Ottawa Senators’ Player – February 3, 2018
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But the Maple Leafs don’t need offense. They need a cheap defenseman who knows where to stand. Phaneuf might provide just that, and at a discounted rate general manager Kyle Dubas might take a chance. Phaneuf might be the kind of guy a coach could trust while the young Marlies’ defensemen grow into the job.

I’m not certain signing Phaneuf would happen, but I would neither be surprised nor bothered if it did. It would be an interesting story. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it might be an option.