Darren Dreger, thought to be the most inside of the insiders when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, stated this morning that according to Dave Nonis, the Leafs have not participated in any trade negotiations about Phaneuf. Nonis, according to Dreger, believes that given the right offer any player is available but is not actively shopping him.
I tend to believe Dreger here over Kypreos, as I consider him more reliable and less prone to just saying something just to cause a stir. Though I can see how Shanahan’s hiring might alter the Leafs plans, they clearly believe in Phaneuf, as they recently signed him and his seven year extension has not even kicked in yet. Trading him before the deal begins but after he has signed a contract isn’t unprecedented- the Flyers did it with Jeff Carter a few years ago.
Furthermore, the Leafs have one of the worst group of defenseman in the entire league and trading their best one seems counter productive and, frankly, insane. You would think that The Leafs would be hard pressed to get market value for a player they just signed and are now (supposedly) trying to trade – it seems reasonable to think that would raise a red flag and would negatively impact his value. Then again, Defenseman of Phaneuf’s quality are rarely available and maybe he would fetch more than you’d think. Either way, it’s hard to see the Leafs getting a player in exchange for him that can replace his minutes and do what has done for the team for the last several years because, despite fan criticism, he is miles better than anyone else on the Leafs roster.
Yes, it’s understandable to want to make changes following the teams end of the year implosion, but change just for changes sake can be dangerous. The Leafs have seen what Dion can do when he is on his game and it is quite impressive. Before the aforementioned collapse, people (hockey people, not crazy un-objective fans) were saying he was having the best year of his career.
Considering how good he has shown he can play, doesn’t it make sense to assume that if the Leafs fixed some of their problems that he would only get better?
How could the Leafs give up on him before ever finding him a real top pairing partner to play with? Say what you want about his play at the end of the year, but facing among the top competition in the NHL and putting up such numbers as he has while playing with, Carl “Gunnysack” Gunnarson, is actually quite impressive. Add in that he has to be everything on the Leafs – Offensive Dman, PP QB, go to defensive DMan, PK specialist – and imagine they actually iced a roster that would allow them to play Dion to his strengths, or a roster with actual forwards who played defense, and it is beyond reasonable to think his play will improve significantly.
Phaneuf is just not valued properly by Leafs fans. People are so out-to-lunch in the way they regard him that you can use Phaneuf as a litmus test to find out if someone actually knows anything about hockey or if they are just an insane fan incapable of objectivity. If they just arbitrarily hate him and say “he sucks,” you can comfortably ignore their opinions when it comes to discussing the Leafs or the NHL. It’s good to keep this in mind because Leafs fans have a long history of ganging up on player and deciding arbitrarily to collectively hate them, often for no reason that a sane person can understand.
Phaneuf is the latest player to join this ignominious club and he doesn’t deserve a fraction of the hate thrown his way. He is a convenient whipping boy because a) his offense isn’t what it was early in his career, despite him being a better all-round player today, b) he doesn’t throw as many insane hits anymore, despite his play actually being better because of it c) he was named Captain “without really earning it,” despite the fact no intelligent person should care at all about anything to do with who is the Captain d) he’s cocky and rich and is married to an actress, none of which has anything to do with hockey and e) since he plays so much, he appears to be on the ice for a lot of goals against and “seems” error prone, though this can be excused by looking into who he is playing against and why, as well as knowing what a confirmation bias is.
(Please note that quotations denote extreme sarcasm.)
Now, this doesn’t mean I think he is the greatest player or that he doesn’t have problems with his game. It just means that he is better than given credit for. One idea out there is that the Leafs would have to eat salary to move him. Moving him is a bad idea, but eating salary is insane. Trust me, by the time July 1st comes and goes in 2014, Dion’s contract is going to look like a bargain. It just isn’t right or sensible to compare his deal to ones signed for previous seasons. I can comfortably state when Subban signs a new deal, it will be for a lot more than what Dion makes and that when you compare Dion’s contract to the ones that will eventually be signed by similar defenseman after him, his will look good by comparison. His contract only looks bad when comparing it to similar players who signed deals a year or more ago.
On Twitter I saw dozens of ridiculous tweets referring to Dion as a “#3 or 4 defenseman” in terms of where he would slot in on a good team’s depth chart. You can’t tell these people any different because people have their minds made up despite it being quite obvious to anyone who actually knows what they are talking about how blatantly stupid such a statement is. If Dion Phaneuf was your fourth best defenseman, a Stanly Cup would be all but a guarantee, as you clearly have put together one of the best all-time groups of defensenmen.
I get the argument that he is not a “true number one.” I can even respect it. Certainly he isn’t if your definition of a “true number one” includes Doughty, Oliverk Ekman-Larsson or Erik Karlson. That, however, isn’t a realistic way to look at it. There are only a half-dozen or so players that would qualify as that kind of number one d-man and you can’t go around saying everyone else sucks. If, however, your definition is anyone who can play on a top pairing in the NHL, then Dion is easily that. But I don’t it’s even fair to try to rank where Phaneuf stands against other top NHL defenders until he plays on a team that is better defensively, that has better centres, and until he has a partner he can consider a peer. When you consider how good he generally is with all the things wrong with the Leafs, it’s reasonable to assume that he can be much better if the Leafs improve their roster.
The Case of Jay Bouwmeester
Just for a real world example of what I am talking about, let’s look at the recent career of Jay Bouwmeester. Bouwmeester was traded out of Florida and his arrival in Calgary made Phaneuf available to the Leafs. The Flames thought JB made Phaneuf expendable, but it didn’t work out that way. Bouwmeester turned out to have some problems playing with a sub-par partner, on a crappy team that was weak down the middle and weak overall defensively. Stop me if this sounds familiar. Calgary got impatient and since Bouwmeester couldn’t do it all by himself he was moved to the Blues.
Suddenly, this supposed “loser,” who had never made the Playoffs in his career and was then obviously “a bad leader” with “no character” is once again considered an elite NHL defenseman. It took him less than a full year to re-establish himself as a top-notch NHL defenseman. He made team Canada at the Olympics. This year, he was a key player on one of the best teams in hockey, ranking second on the Blues in ice-time.
Did he suddenly become a great player after forgetting how to play hockey? No. All that happened was that he went to a team where he could be partnered with somebody as good as he is (Pietrangelo) and which could use his strengths properly and negate his weaknesses.
The Leafs ought to look at the case of Bouwmeester before they decide to move Phaneuf. If they can get a centre and a partner for their best D man, and play better overall team defense, he might once again be considered one of the elite players in the NHL.
If, however, the Leafs actually believe the BS about “changing the culture” that they have been spouting since they lost their playoff spot, then God help them, because I certainty can’t.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.