Should the Maple Leafs Sign Phaneuf?

As the Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported on Saturday, the Los Angeles Kings bought out the contract of defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf had two years left on a $7 million average annual salary and cap hit.

Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Los Angeles Kings
Dion Phaneuf, formerly of the Los Angeles Kings (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

The move wasn’t much of a surprise for those who follow hockey or, specifically, the Los Angeles Kings. It’s clear – the Kings are in full-fledged rebuild mode. Although he was seen as extra weight on the Kings roster, the question for the Toronto Maple Leafs is whether Phaneuf could add value to a Maple Leafs roster that needs cheap help.

The Maple Leafs’ Situation?

Under normal circumstances, Phaneuf would probably not be of interest to the team. However, these are far from normal situation for two reasons.

Reason one is that the Maple Leafs are working under extreme salary cap limits. Three roster players are currently signed for very large salaries: John Tavares ($11 million), Auston Matthews ($11.634 million), and William Nylander (just under $7 million). In addition, the team’s priority is to sign team leader and young star Mitch Marner, who will, if he does sign, likely earn at least $10 million per season.

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That would be four players who together earn almost $40 per season. The NHL has estimated that the 2019-20 maximum salary cap per team will be about $83 million. With four players taking almost half the cap, it doesn’t take much math skill to realize that about 16 other roster players need to total $43 million in salaries.

Furthermore, the team’s contracts already include Frederik Andersen at $5 million; Morgan Rielly at $5 million; Nazem Kadri at $4.5 million; Jake Muzzin at $4 million; and Zach Hyman at $2.25 million. That’s an additional $21 million. Again, the math suggests that the team has $22 million left to sign at least 11 more players (an average of $2 million per player per season).

Jake DeBrusk; Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly and Boston Bruins left wing Jake DeBrusk battle for the puck (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Reason two is that the Maple Leafs defense is in desperate need. Given the current state of affairs, with Nikita Zaitsev no longer wishing to play in Toronto and Ron Hainsey (love him or hate him) unsigned, there’s Rielly, Muzzin, the injured Travis Dermott, and Justin Holl at the backend. The team needs bodies. And, Phaneuf is, if nothing else, an experienced body.

Phaneuf’s Situation?

With the buyout, Phaneuf becomes a free agent. Typically, in situations such as this, on the open market a veteran who has been bought out by his team likely only receives a small fraction of what his salary was on his previous contract. In the case of the Maple Leafs, as I have written in a recent post, the 28-year-old Tyler Ennis was bought out by the Minnesota Wild and signed at the NHL minimum of $650,000 for the 2018-19 season. He added great value to the Maple Leafs at a bargain price.

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Granted, Phaneuf is 34-years-old, has played for 14 seasons, and his career is on the downhill slide. There’s no argument on these points. His best seasons are behind him, and he isn’t getting younger. His play will continue to decline, especially as an offensive player. Furthermore, the physical way Phaneuf plays has taken a toll on his body. He’s an old 34.

Dion Phaneuf
Dion Phaneuf, when he played with the Toronto Maple Leafs (THW Archives)

Given the fact that Zaitsev will likely soon be traded, the Maple Leafs also really need right-handed defensemen and Phaneuf is naturally left-handed. That would be his best side. However, like Jake Muzzin, during his career, Phaneuf has become used to playing on either side and certainly has the experience and savvy to do so. That isn’t the perfect option, but it is an option.

In addition, Phaneuf has a history with the team and obviously was seen as a team leader. He was the Maple Leafs’ captain from 2010 until he left in 2016. He isn’t a perfect addition, but he’s smart enough and experienced enough to potentially make an impact.

Like Hainsey did over the past few seasons playing with Rielly, Phaneuf also might mentor young Maple Leafs prospects moving up from the Toronto Marlies or coming from Europe. Some of these soon-to-be Maple Leafs might include 24-year-old Teemu Kivihalme, who has been playing in Finland; 25-year-old Calle Rosen, 23-year-old Andreas Borgman, 19-year-old Timothy Liljegren, and 18-year-old Rasmus Sandin. These young players promise to become full-time NHL players, but when?

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If each of these young defensemen panned out, that would go a long ways toward solving the team’s defensive problems. But, are they ready? Furthermore, the road is difficult enough already with Dermott likely to miss the first quarter of the season and Hainsey’s status still undetermined.

Can Phaneuf Make a Difference?

It’s easy enough to say about Phaneuf “been there, done that.” However, if one looks at what he currently is instead of what he isn’t anymore, a case could be made that the Maple Leafs might find a place for him on the roster – especially if the price were right. Even if he sat in the press box for much of the season, as coach Mike Babcock noted about 39-year-old Hainsey, “He knows where to stand.”

Former Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf (Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Obviously, there are reasons the Kings chose to buy Phaneuf out. However, the Kings are not the Maple Leafs, and these teams’ needs are very different. What the Kings saw as gratuitous to their rebuild plans, the Maple Leafs might find helpful.

It’s true: Phaneuf no longer either drives the play or produces offence. 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.

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But the Maple Leafs don’t need his offense. They need a cheap body who knows where to stand. Phaneuf might provide just that. His best days are behind him, but at a discounted rate I wouldn’t be surprised if general manager Kyle Dubas signs him. From what I know about Babcock as a coach, Phaneuf is the kind of guy he would trust.

I’m not certain signing Phaneuf would happen, but I would neither be surprised nor bothered if it did. I think it would be a great story.