The Toronto Maple Leafs avoided losing star forward Phil Kessel to free agency next July by inking him this week to an eight-year, $64-million contract extension.
Now their focus shifts to captain Dion Phaneuf, who’s also slated to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun reported talks between Phaneuf and Leafs management haven’t started yet, but could begin soon.
Phaneuf, 28, will be coming off a six-year, $39-million deal he signed with the Calgary Flames before his trade to the Maple Leafs midway through the 2009-10 season.
His critics, however, suggest his performance since joining the Leafs hasn’t met the expectations of a top defenseman earning $6.5 million per season.
Though he possesses strong offensive skills and an aggressive physical style, Phaneuf’s inconsistency on defense frequently draws criticism from Toronto pundits.
Nearly two years ago, Phaneuf topped an SI.com poll of 161 NHL players who ranked him the most overrated player in the league, prompting then-Leafs GM Brian Burke to make a spirited defense of his captain.
Following the 2011-12 season, the Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger called Phaneuf a “polarizing” figure among Leafs fans.
During last spring’s playoff series against the Boston Bruins, former Leafs captain Wendel Clark sprang to Phaneuf’s defense after Phaneuf was criticized for a blunder in Game 4 that resulted in an overtime winner by Bruins forward David Krejci.
Once touted as a potential Norris Trophy winner when he entered the league in 2005-06, Phaneuf has become an “inconsistent, all-round big-minute defenseman.”
His performance also sparked some trade speculation this summer. One rumor had him linked to the Edmonton Oilers.
Despite the criticism, trade rumors and pressure of playing in hockey-mad Toronto, Phaneuf wants to re-sign and has no issue with negotiating during this season.
Leafs GM Dave Nonis praised Phaneuf back in August, calling him “a core part of our team” and adding “there’s no reason to think he won’t be here for the long run.”
It’s the cost of keeping Phaneuf, however, that’s raised some concern in Leafs Nation.
TSN’s Darren Dreger believes Phaneuf “will not take a dime less” than his current $6.5 million annual cap hit. Phaneuf’s critics, on the other hand, believe he should accept a pay cut to remain a Leaf.
If Phaneuf won’t accept less than his current salary, the Leafs could attempt to re-sign him to that salary, but over a shorter term. Then again, they could offer a raise on a long-term extension, keeping him in the fold and provoking outrage from his critics.
Considering the Leafs re-signed Tyler Bozak (another target of frequent criticism from Leafs Nation) to a significant raise this summer, Nonis won’t bat an eye if Phaneuf’s new deal doesn’t sit well with the fans.
Nonis could also wait and see how this season unfolds before getting down to serious talks with his captain. If Phaneuf and the Leafs march deep into the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, the more likely he’ll get a significant raise. If he helps the Leafs end their 47-year Cup drought, they’ll happily open the vault for him.
Expect Phaneuf’s contract status to remain a hot topic for Leafs fans throughout this season.