Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Dion Phaneuf Trade: A Year Later

dion phaneuf leafs trade
Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the trade that brought Dion Phaneuf to Toronto. It was a day met with glee and excitement around Leafs Nation. The Flames were immediately derided for trading a former Norris Trophy candidate at his lowest possible value for a package of cast-offs from the worst team in the Eastern Conference. However, the Flames haven’t exactly missed Phaneuf, but they haven’t really enjoyed the Matt Stajan era either.

But this isn’t a post trying to explain how the Leafs won the trade. It doesn’t really matter who won. Both teams got what they wanted. Calgary needed to save cap space and they did. Unfortunately, they didn’t spend their cap savings wisely, but that’s one reason Darryl Sutter is no longer employed as the team’s GM. Whereas in Toronto, Burke continued to makeover his roster, shipping out players inflicted with losers’ syndrome, while acquiring a young and talented (albeit flawed) player with the type of potential unavailable without the luxury of owning a first round pick.

This is a post examining what’s transpired over the course of a year. A post that will look to the future to see if this is still a deal that will help the Maple Leafs in the long-term. A year ago I said the only way this deal could fail is if the Leafs’ paired Schenn and Phaneuf, causing Pierre McGuire to masturbate on air. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, but are the Leafs in a better place than they were a year ago? I think it would be hard to argue otherwise. But it hasn’t been pretty.

To call Dion Phaneuf’s tenure in Toronto as a disappointment is an understatement. Combined with last season, Phaneuf has played 59 games in the blue and white and has produced underwhelming numbers, especially considering he comes with a cap hit of $6.5 million (the 27th highest in the league). Phaneuf has only managed to score 3 goals and 18 assists in addition to an ugly -10 +/- rating. Those totals extrapolated over the course of an entire year only add up to 30 points. That’s not very good.

Phaneuf’s arrival last season seemed to change the dynamic of the team. He took the pressure off the rest of the defensive group, particularly Beauchemin who was drowning as a number 1 defenceman. The penalty kill improved and the team played well down the stretch, which is usually the deceptive Toronto tactic that sucks me in every year.

However, this year the Phaneuf who arrived in Toronto hasn’t shown himself until recently. He opened the year tentative and did not look anywhere near the number one defenceman that everyone thought he would become in Toronto. Unfortunately, that meant that Beauchemin was forced back into the role he could not capably play.

Just as the fans were beginning to get impatient with Phaneuf – tentatively booing him – he awkwardly fell into the boards against the Senators and sustained a severe leg laceration from an errant skate blade that forced him to miss 16 games. After rehabbing his injury and coming back to the lineup there was no return to form. Phaneuf continued to struggle – making bad defensive reads, pinching in the most inopportune times like his name was Mike Komisarek, and generally playing poorly.

The injury Phaneuf suffered was clearly serious and definitely played a role in his struggles, but this can’t be used to fully explain Phaneuf’s sub-par year, nor would he want it to be.

What’s most concerning is that Phaneuf’s offensive game has totally disappeared. Where is the player that scored 54 goals in the first three seasons? The player that scored 206 points from 2005-2009. The guy with a cannon for a shot can no longer hit the net in Toronto and has not brought the same physical presence that gave him the reputation around the league as one of the most dangerous open ice hitters while playing in Calgary.

But none of this really matters. This was still a good trade for the Maple Leafs. A trade they needed to make. A dwindling free agent market year after year devoid of any real, blue-chip talent combined with a lack of high draft picks meant that the only real option for the Maple Leafs to acquire talent was through trades. Unfortunately, most teams aren’t willing to just give away their talent when everything’s going well. That’s why the Leafs had to take their chance on a player who failed to take the next step in his development like everyone thought he would; a player with tremendous talent, but one who had fallen out of favour in Calgary. The Leafs are in a position where they have to take risks. They have to gamble on players with high ceilings, but for whatever reason have become available for a low price.

It doesn’t matter if Phaneuf is making a hell of a lot of money and doing very little. The Leafs can afford to take a chance on him. The Leafs can afford to be patient and see if Phaneuf regains the form that got him nominated for the Norris Trophy. Sure $6.5 million is a lot of money, but without any top-tier free agents to spend this on it hasn’t become a burden. In fact, this salary, combined with Giguere’s $6 million cap hit, is probably the reason the Leafs didn’t throw money at Ilya Kovalchuk this off-season. Be thankful for that. The Leafs can afford to let Phaneuf try to regain his game. This team is re-building anyways. This isn’t like Detroit trading for Phaneuf, having him eat their cap space and giving them little in the way of production.

I really thought Phaneuf was going to bounce back this year and it hasn’t happened, although, there are some signs of life from the Leafs’ captain. He has three points in his last four games and has started to receive more ice time as a result of his improved play. The lowest Phaneuf has logged in those games was just over 27:00 against Washington, while he played a season high 30:00 against Tampa Bay. What’s even more encouraging is that Phaneuf has started to engage more physically. He threw a bomb on Dany Heatley in San Jose, crushed Tuomo Ruutu in Carolina, and introduced Dana Tyrell to the bench in Tampa Bay.

If the Leafs hope to go anywhere in the near future they need to receive more out of Phaneuf. The fans know it, the coaches know it, and surely Dion knows it. Phaneuf is under contract at $6.5 million per year for the next three seasons, so he better.

Whether or not you agree with his captaincy (I do, he’s all we have), he’s the captain and it’s worth sticking by him. Ultimately, Dion Phaneuf is flawed and he’s a bit of a dick. But he’s our dick and that’s all that matters.


Ted Rigby said...

I agree with your analysis. Although Phaneuf has been underwhelming, the alternative of not having him isn't that attractive either. The fact that his contract is huge doesn't really matter because the Leafs don't have many young players in line for a big raise (besides Schenn), so the money doesn't matter.

In today's NHL, all that matters is getting young talent from the draft, and since the Leafs won't be doing that for a while, they might as well have their money tied up Phaneuf, who knows, maybe he'll magically become great again (it actually baffles me that a player's talent can deteriorate so drastically from one season to the next, but whatever).

Matt Horner said...

Today I was playing NHL 11 and Luke Schenn demanded close to $6 million for 3 years. He settled on $5 million over 5. But that game doesn't know what's going on because the Avalanche were more than happy to trade me Matt Duchene for Kaberle and Finger.

Anonymous said...

But NHL 11 won't accept Phil Kessel for Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight, and a 2011 first round pick, so it knows something.

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