If Dion Phaneuf — a pending unrestricted free agent when the puck drops on the 2013-14 season — doesn’t have a deal by July 1, he could find himself in a position of power on the open market.
But if the defenceman’s stance Tuesday is truthful, he’d be happy to settle things sooner.
“I want to be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs for a long time. I love playing in the city, but the business side will take care of itself,” Phaneuf said at the Leafs and Legends Charity Golf Classic, the club’s annual pre-training-camp get-together. “I’m sure that we’ll get something done.”
Despite garnering mixed reviews as a top-one blue-liner, when it comes to guys at his position entering a contract year, Phaneuf, 28, may well be the most valuable NHL defenceman under the age of 30. And if the salary cap rises sharply in response to this summer’s belt-tightening, as is expected, Phaneuf could benefit from a bidding war.
Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers, who will turn 30 in April, is regarded as a fantastic defender and will surely earn a raise from his current $3.325-million average salary, but the other elite D-men with expiring deals are veterans that will likely be signed short-term. The Sharks' Dan Boyle, the Flyers' Kimmo Timonen, the Habs' Andrei Markov and the Lightning's Sami Salo will all be closer to age 40 than 35 if they hit the open market next summer.
In other words, it may be in the best interest of Phaneuf's wallet to wait.
Yet the newlywed believes there's plenty of time to make another long-term commitment to Toronto, and unlike Phil Kessel -- the Leafs' other major UFA-in-waiting -- he's willing to negotiate during the season.
"We haven't talked yet, but there's lots of time left," Phaneuf said. "I think you're open to everything. For me, I have no problem with doing it during the year. That's what happened with my last deal."
Phaneuf's last deal -- a six-year, $39-million whopper -- was inked before the Alberta native joined the Leafs via trade in January 2010. It's a lot of dough for a defenceman, albeit one with a booming shot and a knockout shoulder, who has been a minus player in every season with the Leafs. Collectively over his four years in Toronto, Phaneuf is a minus-18.
Toronto GM Dave Nonis believes Phaneuf is a core part of a team that broke the longest-standing playoff drought last year.
"He's our captain. He's fit well into Toronto and our group, and there's no reason to think he won't be here for the long run," Nonis told NHL.com a couple weeks ago.
Except there is. Hockey Central insider Nick Kypreos reported that Phaneuf was being shopped by Nonis this summer, and if the Leafs -- facing tougher divisional competition this year with the addition of the Detroit Red Wings -- do find themselves fading from the playoff picture at the trade deadline, it's tough to imagine contenders not making bids for Phaneuf. Add the fact that sniper Phil Kessel, a more valuable commodity, is due for a raise, and the Leafs could be looking at some tough financial choices.
Phaneuf downplayed his hopes for an extension Tuesday, reiterating that the business side of hockey "takes care of itself."
For his part, Randy Carlyle said the contract agreements take time but have no affect on the coaching staff.
"They're free agents, and they'll have to make a decision on what direction they want to go in as a hockey club, and we as a hockey club make a decision on what direction we'd like to go in with those players," Carlyle said of Phaneuf and Kessel. "If it affects the player, then it's part of his responsibility to deal with it. We're not here to make excuses; we're here to win hockey games."
Carlyle's simple philosophy? The best players play, regardless of the outside noise.
So if ice time is an indication, Carlyle believes Phaneuf is one of his best players. The captain averaged 31.6 shifts per game in 2013, third most in the NHL behind only the Blues' Alex Pietrangelo and the Kings' Drew Doughty. Phaneuf longed a team-high 25:10 of ice time, 11th most in the league. (To be fair, Phaneuf's game logs read similar under former coach Ron Wilson.)
New Leafs Dave Bolland and David Clarkson both point out that the captain reached out to them right away, welcoming them to the team.
And if Phaneuf has worries about the business of his NHL future, they seemingly pale in comparison to his resolve he has for avenging the Leafs shocking dismissal from the playoffs in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins.
"It definitely stung for a while. It was the toughest loss I've been a part of, personally, in the game. But we have to learn from it," Phaneuf said about the historic collapse that no doubt haunted its victims. "When you do make the playoffs and the steps we made as a team and an organization last year, there comes expectations. I don't think the right word is pressure. There's expectations on our team, and we fully expect to be a playoff team."