After a summer of moves that ranged from foolish to dumbfounding, Dave Nonis made another questionable decision on the eve of the Winter Classic that he probably felt he had no choice but to make.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager signed captain Dion Phaneuf to a seven-year, $49 million extension Tuesday, locking up the team’s captain through his 36th birthday. It’s a hefty price tag for a player who isn’t among the elite defenders in either shutting down the opposition or scoring from the blue line, but if it wasn't the Leafs giving Phaneuf this deal, it would have been another team this summer.
Nonis would have been better off letting someone else make that mistake.
Phaneuf’s cap hit starting in 2014-15 is $7 million, tied for the fifth highest among defensemen with Drew Doughty and behind Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Kris Letang and Brian Campbell. Zdeno Chara, Erik Karlsson and Alex Pietrangelo are not far behind Phaneuf, either.
Both Weber and Suter are premier defenders capable of contributing offense, while Letang is one of the most dangerous scorers among defensemen in the league. Campbell’s contract looks silly now, but when he signed it before the 2008-09 season, he was 29 and one of the game's better overall defensemen.
Chara and Karlsson have won Norris Trophies, while Pietrangelo, still only 23 years old, looks like he’s headed in that direction.
Phaneuf doesn’t match up with those defensemen in any category, yet he will be compensated that way through the 2021-22 season. It’s not as though his contract will cause the Leafs a headache with the salary cap projected to escalate greatly over the next few years, but Phaneuf simply isn’t worthy of the deal.
It most certainly hasn't been a banner year for the Leafs' front office.
Nonis spent the offseason acquiring Jonathan Bernier to solve a goaltending problem that didn’t exist, signing David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak to lucrative contracts despite production that didn’t justify the dollars and parting ways with Mikhail Grabovski, who has been an offensive force with the Washington Capitals.
With Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel signed to lengthy deals, the Leafs have their core locked up for quite some time. The problem is that it’s a core that hasn’t reached the postseason in an 82-game season during its time together in Toronto.
With Phaneuf, he’s the best of a blue-line bunch that is generally lacking in experience or talent. Morgan Rielly, 19, and Jake Gardiner, 23, have the potential to be elite defensemen, but they are still learning the NHL. Paul Ranger was signed over the summer after being away from the game for three years. Carl Gunnarsson and Cody Franson are steady but not quite No. 1s. Mark Fraser is strictly a depth defender.
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Nonis didn’t have any better options to anchor his defense, but he said that’s not why he gave Phaneuf the massive contract.
"If you're signing players because you don't have anyone to replace them, you're making mistakes,” Nonis said at the press conference in Ann Arbor to announce the deal. “We signed Dion to this deal because he deserved it. He's going to play at this level or beyond, I feel, for seven years, maybe beyond that. It's not that you don't have anyone to replace Dion, it's that he's done enough to prove to us that he is a player that is near the top of the league in terms of how he stacks up against the top defensemen.”
There’s no doubt Phaneuf faces the best of the best every night, as his QoC of 30.3 percent ranks first in the NHL among defenseman and fifth overall. But his Corsi For (minus-3.7 percent ) and Fenwick For (minus-2.5 percent) numbers show he’s not getting the job done on a consistent enough basis to warrant this type of lucrative deal.
Phaneuf's career-best season offensively came with the Calgary Flames with 2007-08 when he had 17 goals and 60 points. He hasn't eclipsed 50 points since that season and is on pace for just 31 points this season.
Even with all that working against him, Nonis made a fair point.
“Dion was going to get seven years regardless,” Nonis said. “If we weren't going to pay him, he's going to get it.”
Phaneuf would've landed a similar to deal to this one if he went to the market. Defensemen are valuable commodities, and there would have been a team willing to go north of $49 million. If Tobias Enstrom received five years and $28.75 million from the Winnipeg Jets at 29, there would have been a team this summer that would have backed a truck full of money onto Phaneuf's front lawn.
Phaneuf was well aware of his value. But, to his credit, he chose to stay in Toronto after lengthy discussions with his agent.
“To be completely honest with you, you do have meetings about if it does go the other way,” Phaneuf said. “But it was an easy decision for me to stay here and be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I really believe that we're building something special.”
That remains to be seen.