Phaneuf’s new deal proves NHL GMs are constantly gambling

Adam Proteau
2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Team Practice Session

ANN ARBOR, MICH. – The much-rumored contract extension for Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf was consummated Tuesday prior to Toronto’s outdoor practice at Michigan Stadium. And although there are some who will decry the seven-year, $49-million extension for the veteran defenseman as too pricey, GM Dave Nonis told a media throng not only did he not have qualm one about giving it to him, but Phaneuf’s play this season accelerated the negotiating process.

“He came out of the chute pretty good and didn’t fade,” Nonis said of Phaneuf, who has four goals and 15 points in 39 games this year in what most believe is his most consistent season as a Leaf. “We didn’t think there was any reason to hold off.”

Phaneuf’s critics argue the Leafs didn’t need to fork over so much money and term to a blueliner who isn’t considered a perennial Norris Trophy candidate – and that the only reason the 28-year-old got this deal is because Toronto doesn’t have a top-pair D-man in the system – but Nonis quickly shot down those notions.

“We signed Dion to this deal because he deserved it,” Nonis said, pouring cold water on the notion Toronto had to sign the 28-year-old because they didn’t have enough organizational depth to replace him if he left via unrestricted free agency. “It’s not that we don’t have anyone to replace him. I think if that’s why we were signing him, we’d be making a mistake.”

Phaneuf undoubtedly would have gotten at least as much money and term from another team in what promises to be a weak UFA market this summer, but the Leafs weren’t about to allow that to happen to the nine-year NHL veteran. And considering the salary cap is projected to continue rising for the foreseeable future, $7-million per season isn’t a backbreaker deal.

If there is a silver lining for those who are worried Phaneuf will turn into a depreciating asset sooner than later, it’s that Nonis was able to procure a modified no-trade clause in the new contract. Phaneuf still can be traded prior to the contract kicking in next season and must provide a list of teams (TSN reported the number as “more than 10”) to which he would accept a trade. Giving the franchise roster flexibility is important to the Leafs GM.

“The core is always going to be somewhat moveable,” Nonis said, adding that he’s not worried by the perceived lack of popularity of Phaneuf among the fan base. “I think (Dr. Seuss villainous character) The Grinch would be beloved if we win.”

As for Phaneuf, he might not be the most efficient defenseman in the game – and he certainly isn’t the most candid player in NHL history – but at a time when defensive talent and depth is at a premium, he had leverage and used it to his advantage. You can argue the Leafs would have been better of taking their chances and letting him leave or dealing him at the trade deadline (Nonis did say he could have moved Phaneuf or other cornerstone Phil Kessel instead of signing them and gotten “pretty heavy returns”), but that would have been as much of a gamble as the extension itself. In essence, he got a $500,000 per season raise on his current cap hit – an adjustment for inflation, if you will – and it’s hard to see how he could’ve signed for less and still remained the proud leader of the team.

The sole thing Phaneuf’s contract proves right now is a GM is always taking a calculated risk. And in this instance, the calculations pointed only in one direction: retaining him – not at all costs, but certainly at a notable one.