It pains me to write this. Dion Phaneuf is one of my favorite hockey players of all-time. I have watched him be unfairly maligned by the world’s most ridiculous hockey market for the last five years.
I have witnessed him play some of the hardest competition in the NHL, seen the Leafs ask him to be all things (top penalty killer, top offensive defenseman, top defensive defenseman, power-play specialist, top minutes-eating defenseman, enforcer and captain). I’ve seen him do it all with aplomb and then be s#it on by the very fans he does it for.
I have seen the worst of NHL fans through the lens of Dion Phaneuf: blamed for everything that goes wrong, credited with nothing. I have seen the very worst of confirmation bias, the worst media response and the saddest case of making a guy a whipping-boy since actual whipping boys went out of fashion sometime in the 1600s.
Through it all, Dion Phaneuf has never complained. He’s never played a single game where he didn’t put his heart and body on the line, and through it all, the Leafs have never once given him a partner worthy of his game. If they hadn’t miscast him as the anchor of the blueline, if they had instead partnered him with someone as good as he is who could share some of the load, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation: the Leafs would probably have been a good team. But we are and they aren’t.
Sure, Cody Franson is a nice player, but if we’re realistic about it, him and Dion make up a nice #2 and #3 on a good team. The fact is, in the NHL, if you want to compete, you have to have a legitimate number one Dman.
I thought once-upon-a-time that Dion was exactly that. It turns out that he wasn’t. But, at worst, he’s still one of the top twenty or thirty defensmen in the NHL and that is nothing to sneer at. His treatment at the hands of the Leafs and the media that covers them is nothing short of despicable and it should be, and is, a black-eye on the Leafs franchise, their fans and the Toronto market.
The way Phaneuf Has Been Treated Is an Injustice.
There is Nothing I would like more than for these views to be confirmed and shoved down people’s throats as Phaneuf leads the Leafs to the Stanley Cup. I think he’s an excellent – underrated – hockey player. I think he deserves better and I also think he’s worth every dime of his contract: but it’s time to move on.
The fact is, it pains me to write this. I don’t want the Leafs to trade Dion. But I don’t want the Leafs to continue to be the joke of the NHL either. The time to make a hard decision is upon the team’s new management group and this time I hope they don’t cower.
They had a chance to do the hard thing this summer and re-tool the team in advance of the deepest draft in recent memory. They had a chance and instead they added pieces that only made sense if you thought the team was on the verge of being a strong Cup Contender.
The Leafs should never have added Komarov, Santorelli, Winnik, Polak or Robidas. To do so was, frankly, wishful thinking and it was the easiest answer to a complex question. The team – we can now safely say, although there are those who said so all along – should have been getting its house in order and not maxing out the salary cap with the kind of players you add when you’re close to the Cup, not the basement.
These terrible summer moves have lead to a situation where the team is almost certain to trade a player they have no business trading in Cody Franson (his development into a top 4 right-handed shooting defensemen is almost certainly going to be wasted because the team has $20 million dollars tied up in Bozak, Lupul, Clarkson, Robidas and Reimer for reasons no one can seemingly answer).
But the reason to move Phaneuf is only partially because of the problems the team has with the salary cap. The main reason to move him is because this team needs a change. I put less stock into the idea of “culture” and “leadership” than possibly any writer you are apt to come across, and I don’t think that is necessarily what I am arguing for here.
What I am saying is a bit more complicated than mere culture: the team has a core which has been together for several years, coaches and massive collapses. Outside of the younger half of said core, there really isn’t a lot of room for improvement and there is a ton of salary committed. Even if you could magically get rid of Clarkson and Robidas, the team would still have barely enough money to re-sign Kadri, Bernier and Franson, so the management has really no choice but to move at least one, maybe two of their “core pieces.”
Who Do You Move?
The Leafs have Rielly, Kadri, Bernier, Nylander as basically their “untouchables” and then they have Kessel who is so good the team really shouldn’t consider trading him. That leaves Phaneuf, JVR and Gardiner as guys you would keep in a perfect world, but really have to at least consider moving at this point.
Phaneuf not only makes the most money out of that group, but he plays a position that teams want the most. For whatever it’s worth, trading him would likely have the effect of a coaching change – the captain, vocal focal point, and biggest minutes-eater would create a massive change within the room no matter what the dynamics currently are or how much they matter overall.
On top of which, trading Phaneuf allows the Leaf to transition Morgan Rielly into the #1 role – a role he is going to have to learn-on-the-job.
If you do the analysis, it really is a no-brainer: Dion Phaneuf must be traded for the Leafs to get out of whatever the hell has been happening to them for the last twenty-odd months since that notorious game in Boston. I don’t want him to go. I don’t blame him and I think his treatment here has been shoddy. But he has to be traded.
And I also suspect if you could ask him and he could trust you not to blab, he’d say he’d like to get out too.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.