Leafs must keep calm over Phaneuf’s contract

Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf's contract extension is questioned by Jeremy Roenick.

Defence contractors

While Phil Kessel signed an eight-year, $64-million contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs a few weeks ago, the understanding has been that neither side has illustrated any urgency regarding Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf who also becomes an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos now reports the Phaneuf camp is looking for a contract in the seven-year, $50-million range, given Leafs captain’s strong play early this season. He regularly leads the team in minutes and is playing arguably his best hockey as a Leaf during this great start to the season. Given the apparent lack of quality free-agent defenceman that will be available this summer, I can understand the argument being made on behalf of Phaneuf.

My only word of caution to GM Dave Nonis is not to be bullied into any sense of urgency in the matter. If Phaneuf wants to remain the Leaf captain—and if the Leafs want that, too—a deal can always be worked out later in the season or in the off-season. Toronto’s recent track record serves as fair warning. The “clock was ticking” on getting a deal done with unrestricted free agent Bryan McCabe in 2006; as it ticked, the price kept going up. At least that’s how it appeared to then-GM John Ferguson Jr. McCabe signed a five-year contract with an average salary of $5.75 million per year. His play plummeted immediately and he was shipped to the Florida Panthers two seasons later.

Overall, the Leafs have seriously misjudged the value of any defenceman who’ve gotten contracts of more than three years. Jean Michael Liles is in the second-year of a four-year, $3.875-million contract the Leafs already regret, while two unrestricted free agent acquisitions (Jeff Finger, four years, $3.5 million per season in 2008; and Mike Komisarek, five years, $4.5 million per season) were basically busts from the day they first put on their Leaf uniform.

Better to follow the example set in 2011 by then-GM Brian Burke, who accurately read Thomas Kaberle’s pending free-agent situation. Burke dealt him to the Boston Bruins just prior to the trade deadline. Kaberle contributed marginally to the Bruins Cup run, and scored a three-year, $4.25 million per year deal with Carolina. He’s been basically a bust since signing the new deal. Unlike the others, he’s doing it off of Toronto’s books.

Tandem traditions

On our Leafs Nation pre and post-game radio shows, many of our callers are understandably thrilled with the play of both Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer in the Leaf nets. A few have wondered and debated what the greatest Leaf goaltending tandem ever. The Stanley Cup in 1967 comes to mind, won on the backs of Hall of Famers Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk. I remember a brief period of goaltending glory on a Leaf team that was still in a rebuilding phase overall. When Bernie Parent was acquired by the Leafs on February 1st, 1971, it provided them with arguably their best goaltending tandem for the next season and a half. His goaltending partner was the legendary Jacques Plante who enjoyed his last chunk of NHL goaltending greatness during this brief stint with the Leafs.

Plante finished the 1970-71 season with a GAA of 1.88. The following season—the pair’s lone full term together—with Plante as a mentor, is what Parent credits for taking him to the next level and making him a star. Unfortunately for Leafs fans, Parent would leave the Leafs to join the new World Hockey Association in 1972 and ultimately it would be the Flyers who would benefit from his growth during those Leafs years as Parent returned to the NHL with Philadelphia, backstopping them to Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.

The one that got away

Another player the Leafs will rue letting go is Alexander Steen. His game-winning goal over the Winnipeg Jets on Monday gives him a league-leading 11 for the season, and putting him among the NHL’s overall point leaders with 16. Add to that the praise from his coach Ken Hitchcock that Steen has evolved into a “complete hockey player.”

At the expense of being accused of the pot calling the kettle black (yes, anyone over 35 will chide me for trading Russ Courtnall to Montreal in 1988), this trade made no sense when it was made and even less now. The Leaf traded two first-round picks—Steen (2002) and Carlo Colaiacovo (2001)—to the St. Louis Blues in 2008, for Lee Stempniak. Though it was general manger Cliff Fletcher who pulled the trigger on the deal, this trade was the first hint that head coach Ron Wilson had little time or patience to allow Leaf prospects to develop within the organization. It’s something current coach Randy Carlyle has changed, molding Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and others into regular NHL players.

Great Dane

While Steen is among the surprises in early season offensive stats, the biggest one to me is Frans Nielsen of the New York Islanders. A 29-year-old who has scored at a 13 goals, 30 points average pace in his five previous full seasons with the Islanders, he leads the Islanders in early season scoring (ahead of John Tavares) with 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) in 12 games. Islander insiders give Nielsen credit for putting it all together so far this season, but also point to the under-the-radar free agent signing of Peter Regin. Being two of the few Danish born players in the NHL today, the friendship with Regin has apparently played a role in Nielsen’s success.

Fond farewell

Give Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau credit for putting Saku Koivu on the ice for what will be his last visit to Montreal last week. Even though his Ducks were losing, Boudreau gave the crowd at the Bell Center an opportunity to pay the former Canadiens’ captain appropriate tribute and let Montreal say goodbye to a great player on the ice and class act off it.

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