The top priority for the Toronto Maple Leafs needs to be signing Dion Phaneuf to a contract extension.
Phaneuf and Phil Kessel entered the season in the final year of their contracts, and now that Kessel has his eight-year, $80 million extension, it’s time for Toronto to ink Phaneuf to an extension as well.
Phaneuf and Kessel are the cornerstone pieces to this franchise. And just like it’s impossible to replace a point-per-game player like Kessel, it’s equally as difficult replacing a 25-minute-per-night defenseman.
The captain of the Maple Leafs has had his fair share of critics since arriving in Toronto. He’s been accused of trying to do too much on offense which has led to the team being burned on the scoreboard. He’s been accused of not being able to be the team’s top defenseman. At times, he’s even been accused of not being physical enough which is hard to believe considering he’s known for his thundering body-checks.
Unfortunately, under the giant microscope that comes with playing in the hockey-crazed market of Toronto, Phaneuf has been grossly underappreciated. Is he perfect? No. Does he have flaws? Absolutely. However, can the Maple Leafs afford to lose him? Absolutely not. Finding a player who averages close to 25 minutes a game (Phaneuf is averaging 24:37 minutes per game) isn’t a void that can be replaced by a call-up from the minors.
The captain has begun the year playing some of the best hockey of his career. His performance against the Anaheim Ducks in a 4-2 victory exemplified how effective Phaneuf can be for the Maple Leafs. He did a great job containing Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, limiting the chances of the dangerous big-bodied forwards. He changed momentum in the contest when down a goal after his bone-crushing hit on Kyle Palmeiri lifted the Maple Leaf crowd out of their seats. When it was all said and done, Phaneuf ended the game with a stat line that read one goal, plus-two, three blocked shots, and six hits. What more could you ask from a captain when facing a team that entered the night on a seven-game win streak?
Despite strong performances like the one he had against the Ducks, Phaneuf can’t seem to get fair credit for his play in Toronto. He’s leading the way on a thin blue-line and yet he still receives just as much criticism, if not more than anybody else on the roster. The captain is often compared to Scott Stevens for the way he’s able to dish out hits, but even Stevens had help to share the workload thanks to Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko . There’s nothing similar to Niedermayer or Daneyko on this club.
Perhaps taking unfair amounts of criticism comes with the job of being captain of the Maple Leafs. Mats Sundin was grossly underappreciated until the final seasons of his time in Toronto, but nobody remembers that now that he’s retired. Sundin was accused of being too soft and was questioned as the right choice to lead the club, even after he helped the Maple Leafs win playoff rounds.
Maybe the criticism is simply magnified playing in Toronto. It’s not like other quality defensemen haven’t been told they aren’t good enough. Erik Karlsson has been blasted for not being physical enough. P.K. Subban has been accused of being immature. Shea Weber is overpaid, Drew Doughty is too cocky, and Brent Seabrook needs to be a better skater. Despite those five defensemen being criticized, Maple Leaf fans would want them in blue and white in a heartbeat.
The Toronto market is underappreciating Phaneuf, and they need to stop looking at what he can’t do and respect what he does bring to the table. The notion that Phaneuf isn’t deserving of being a top-pairing defenseman is insulting. The notion that Phaneuf shouldn’t make more than $5 million a season is insulting. Toronto will not be able to replace an intimidating presence like Phaneuf. They will not be able to replace his 25 minutes per night, his leadership on the ice, or the way he sacrifices his body with hits and blocked shots.
They can’t afford to overpay him, like somebody on the open market will. Phaneuf would easily get $8 million per season as a free agent. However, if they can get him at a cap hit of $7 million or less, they should count their blessings.
Toronto needs Phaneuf, a lot more than Phaneuf needs Toronto.