With the Toronto Maple Leafs finally making Dion Phaneuf’s contract extension official with a seven-year, $49 million deal, many in Leafs Nation are concerned the team is repeating history.
Some in Toronto’s fan base fear Phaneuf’s extension is too similar to when the team signed Bryan McCabe to an extension with a significant cap hit for multiple years. McCabe signed the contract at the time for less than he could have gotten on the open market, but it didn’t matter as by the time the ink dried on the contract it became a disaster.
Part of what made the contract so bad was that the Maple Leafs gave McCabe a no-trade clause in exchange for the player taking less money. Then when Toronto finally accepted they needed a complete rebuild and tried to strip the franchise down to acquire assets for the future, McCabe refused to leave as he and the rest of the Muskoka Five wanted a final pathetic run at the playoffs together.
However, the true reason McCabe’s contract was a disappointment from the moment he signed it was because McCabe’s game completely fell off the map. It’s as if he stopped caring, and when players around him evolved to change their game in the faster NHL after the lockout of 2004-05, McCabe was exposed as a slow skater who needed to hook onto his opponents for any chance of stopping them. There’s also no question McCabe was always better offensively than defensively as just like Phaneuf he owned a big slap shot and had an above average passing ability. However, unlike how Phaneuf has shown a significant improvement in limiting his turnovers, McCabe never improved and routinely coughed up the puck. If he wasn’t giving the puck away then he was also throwing himself out of position with a missed attempt at a big body-check or unrealistic attempt at a pinch in at the offensive blue-line, another area of Phaneuf’s game where he’s drastically improved.
However, the one undeniable difference between McCabe and Phaneuf is Phaneuf hasn’t come close to playing with the veteran core that McCabe was comfortably surrounded by for a significant portion of his Maple Leaf career. Life would be a lot easier for Phaneuf if he had veterans such as Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alexander Mogilny, Ed Belfour, Darcy Tucker, Shayne Corson, Brian Leetch, Owen Nolan, Tom Fitzgerald, or even Mikael Renberg, all players who are former Captains, Gold Medalists, or Stanley Cup Champions. When the majority of those veterans left, McCabe’s attitude and performance went down the drain as there were no longer leaders to get on his behind to tell him to pick up his play.
Phaneuf has proven he doesn’t need someone to motivate him and he’s proved it playing a much bigger role for the club than McCabe ever did. Phaneuf is one of the oldest players on the roster, and as Captain he’s most responsible for helping to motivate his younger teammates. Now that he’ll be sticking around in Toronto for the next seven years, the team can begin to do a better job of surrounding Phaneuf with better veteran leadership. He might not have fully appreciated playing with a veteran like Jarome Iginla when he was younger, but as he’s matured there’s no question Phaneuf’s on-ice performance, and the team’s young roster, would benefit from playing with veterans who can provide additional leadership in the locker room.
For those fearing Phaneuf’s deal is history repeating itself with another McCabe situation, understand that Phaneuf has twice the heart as McCabe did and 10 times the passion. Phaneuf’s desire and hunger to be one of the best defenseman in the league only continues to grow. Therefore fans should understand the team just signed its Captain to a bargain contract, not 2014’s version of McCabe deteriorating as a hockey player.