Phaneuf would upgrade most teams’ defence

May 12, 2014, 4:48 PM

It’s a shared problem among fan bases across the National Hockey League: They watch their own players so closely that, after a while, they only see the flaws and overlook the positives.

It’s worse in Canadian cities, where everyone thinks like a hockey scout. That’s when Larry Murphy Syndrome (LMS) sets in, and a player who has been misused and abused in one town can turn into a valuable piece elsewhere.

Dion Phaneuf is the latest example of a valuable, experienced player who may be overpaid at the moment (not his fault) and likely not suited to be the captain or alpha defenceman of the Toronto Maple Leafs (again, not his fault). He makes too many mistakes defensively to carry the minutes of a No. 1 defenceman, even though Toronto decided to pay him and play like one.

Now, word is out he’s being shopped. You can bet that’s a directive from new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, as it’s doubtful that general manager Dave Nonis — who signed Phaneuf to that seven-year, $49-million deal, which starts next season — would opt to trade a player before he played a single game of a long-term deal.

Some folks in Toronto openly wonder how anyone could possibly want Phaneuf on their roster. That’s a sign of advanced LMS, as there are likely 25 other teams who would look at the player and see that he could upgrade their defence in some capacity.

So, for the moment, forget the price tag.

In Calgary, Brian Burke — who made Phaneuf the Leafs captain when Burke was the Leafs GM — is the Flames president of hockey operations. Phaneuf would be Calgary’s second-best blue-liner behind Mark Giordano.

In Edmonton, Phaneuf’s hometown, he would immediately step in as the Oilers’ best defenceman — which isn’t what Phaneuf needs.

In San Jose, Phaneuf’s offence and power-play blast could offset the pending absence of Dan Boyle, should Boyle not return. And he would be surrounded by a defensive group that could afford Phaneuf less time defending in key situations, as he is asked to do in Toronto.

In St. Louis, the feeling was that Chicago’s major advantage was a second defensive pairing that was vastly superior to the Blues’. Would Phaneuf change that? Yes, he would — as a second-pairing guy. Not a one-two.

Of course, the question becomes this: Can a $7 million cap hit (for seven more seasons) ever be considered a second-pairing defenceman? Answer: he can if he’s a $5.25 million player, with the Leafs retaining 25 per cent of Phaneuf’s salary.

If Toronto wants anything back for this player, the Leafs must retain salary. Think of it as buying some return back in the trade. Because if the Leafs don’t, they’ll be forced to take back an equally bad contract. That won’t improve the on-ice product in Toronto, where Phaneuf did fill 23:33 in ice time per night this season.

The point is, Phaneuf is like virtually every other player in that he has both flaws and an upside.

The upside is a bomb from the point that plenty of teams covet. He has great size at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds; he plays a physical game and skates exceptionally well; he has 680 games of NHL experience; and, at 29, he should have five or six good seasons left, having been relatively healthy in his career.

The downside? His hockey sense has always been questioned, which is an Achilles heel on a top-pairing defenceman. He makes mistakes — too many to be a $7 million captain.

Even with that hefty contract, however, Nonis’s phone will be ringing this week. Everyone wants size in today’s game, and Phaneuf has that. It’s a tenet of playoff hockey that you can’t have enough good D-men, and Phaneuf’s heavy point shot makes him desirable on the power play.

It’s just that contract.

“If you like the player, it’s not an issue,” one former general manager told us. “There are advantages and disadvantages to long-term deals. If you like him, he’s locked up.”

Or, you can look at it this way: By July 1, once a few of the top guys sign with their teams, we predict Phaneuf will be as good a defenceman (or better) than is available on the unrestricted free agent market. Good UFAs get the kind of contract Phaneuf has, like it or not.

That means a better market for Nonis. Even if a lot of Leafs fans don’t believe there should be much of a market at all.

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