Not long after locking up Phil Kessel for the next eight years, the Toronto Maple Leafs are zeroing in on locking up another core piece. As I’m sure you’ve all read, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in negotiations to retain Captain Dion Phaneuf for the long haul. Acquired in the second year of a 6-Year, $39 Million contract signed with the Calgary Flames, Phaneuf would be an unrestricted free agent if he walked away from the Leafs’ offers.
Nick Kypreos suggested on October 29th that Phaneuf has set the bar for himself at 7 years, $50 million, for a cap hit of $7.14 million dollars. The Leafs are still looking to chip that number down, and as such, no pen has been put to paper. Meanwhile, Leafs Nation has had some time to absorb the numbers and adjust their feelings towards the team’s top defenceman.
When I asked in January, the average (of 50) legitimate respondents was that Phaneuf’s value was about 4.96 million, with nobody going higher than 6.5, and some saying as low as 1.5 million. I asked the same question today and got 66 responses.
|3 Years||4 Years||5 Years||6 Years||7 Years||8 Years|
|Under 6M||6-6.25M||6.26-6.5M||6.51-6.75M||6.76-7M||7.01-7.25M||7.26-7.5M||Over 7.51M|
When averaged out, the people appear to be okay with six years at 6.78 million. But the question is, are the fans or Phaneuf on the right path? Maybe we’re all buying into the hype, and he’s actually not worth that much…
I’m kidding. We’re just starting to catch up to his deserved value. Dion Phaneuf is setting the Leafs up for a steal.
There’s a very easy way to evaluate if a player is worth a paycheque, and that’s looking at historical precedent. This was harder a few years ago, but now that we’re about to go into year nine of the Salary Cap era, there tends to be enough data to make it work. Earlier this year, I used players in comparable situations to judge Carl Gunnarsson and Phil Kessel.
In the case of Phaneuf, I did a sweep of all pending UFA defencemen between the ages of 26 and 32, who signed a contract with a cap hit of at least 5.5 million dollars. Phaneuf is 29 years old, putting him square in the middle of that gap.
Using unrestricted free agency is very important in a situation like this. People are quick to quote the Erik Karlsson’s and PK Subban’s of the world, but restricted free agency puts most of the power in the hands of the team. Yes, the threat of an offer sheet gives some leverage to a player, but seeing as only two defencemen (Niklas Hjalmarsson and Shea Weber) have gone through that process in the past fifteen years, I don’t think it’s realistic to consider. Without further ado, these are Phaneuf’s comparables. For the sake of having a solid sample size, we’ll use Phaneuf’s 2012/13 season throughout this article.
Next up, we need to take our comparables and adjust their salaries to the current salary cap climate. Dollars are dollars, but if the percentage of the payroll they take up is more important. For example, there are ten players who’s cap hit is $7.8 million or above, which was the maximum in salary in 2005/06. Today’s max is 12.86 million. Only Alexander Ovechkin comes within even $4 million of the league max, at $9.5 million. For the sake of the argument, lets adjust everyones contract’s to the current $64.3 million cap:
|Player||Years||Cap Hit||13/14 Equivalent|
The pre-cap numbers line up with the expected contract, but already show that a high level, prime age UFA defenceman has a modern value of about 7.5 million dollars. Prime Zdeno Chara would be making nearly 11 million today! But the next question is, how does he actually line up against these players? Let’s level up their results.
* much like Parise in my Kessel piece, I’ve chopped off the final 5 years of Suter’s contract because they wouldn’t be allowed in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.
For the sake of this argument, we’re going to adjust the minutes of everybody’s contract years to 2050 over 82 games. This gives an average of 25:00 per game, a solid number for a top pairing defenceman. This is something I like to do for a lot of my arguments, because it gives everybody a level playing field. This can also be accomplished using per 60 minutes like a lot of "advanced" statistic sites like to do, but this method gives you a better look into how a textbook season would turn out.
Dion Phaneuf Against The World
Before we get to that, I feel like it’s worth taking into consideration what Phaneuf has to play both against and with. For this, I’ve used Quality of Competition and Teammates based on Relative Corsi, which is considered by many to be the most consistent of the QoC/QoT stats. Especially for a defenceman, your job is to keep your opponents from taking aim at your net, so it means a lot if you’re facing the best players at it in the league.
Since there are so many years to consider, a few of these players don’t have statistics available. As well, I’ve included their ranking and the percentile of the league’s defencemen they play in.
|Player||QoC||Rank||%ile||QoT||Rank||%ile||%ile GAP||On-Ice SV%|
To be blunt, Dion Phaneuf played against harder competition to put up his numbers than any other player in this list, and had worse supporting teammates. It’s not even close, either; Jay Bouwmeester and Ryan Suter are in similar percentiles in toughness of competition, but their actual number is behind, and they had better (much so in Suter’s case) teammates to work with.
In fact, some were flat out set up to succeed. Tobias Enstrom played against slightly above average competition, but was always surrounded by heavy artillery to support him. Wade Redden and Brian Campbell had the same thing happen with them, and it’s no wonder that their deals are considered by many to be the worst of this bunch.
I also included On-Ice Shooting Percentage. James Reimer was lights out (0.924) last year, but Dion wasn’t the recipient of his best goaltending, getting a 0.915 save percentage out of him and Ben Scrivens while he was on the ice. This is likely a consequence of the previously mentioned ability of his opponents. In any case, Phaneuf still got slightly above average support between the pipes, but not by a lot. (That 0.906 average goes to 0.913 when you remove the mess that Dan Boyle had to deal with).
Not shown here but worth noting as well, he was sent out in these situations for the third most shifts per game in the NHL last year.
Basically, I’m reminding you to consider that these are the numbers of a man who plays against superstar talent more than anybody else in the NHL, and spent half his time last year doing so with Korbinian Holzer and Mike Kostka on the point with him.
Dion Phaneuf as an Offensive Defenceman
While not exactly Kris Letang (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are wonderful drugs), Phaneuf’s point totals are near the median of the group, while being tied for third in goal scoring rate. Dion carries the benefit of a high shooting percentage, but it’s also something that’s spilled over into this year.
If you’re one to buy into the "Leafs wait for high percentage shots" theory, then his below-average shots taken play nicely into this and makes it quite explainable. If not, it’s an anomaly. Overall, he at least seems to be an average offensive player for his range, impressive when you consider how many of these guys are/were considered offensive defencemen.
I also included plus/minus. Not because I think it’s a good judge of a player’s ability. If anything, I think this shows the opposite; the entire class averaging a +2 shows that it’s not really the mark of a great defenceman, but an indicator of how good your team as a whole happens to be even strength. Boyle’s horrendus -58 pace, for example lines up well with the equally bad 0.857 On Ice Save Percentage he played through.
Dion Phaneuf, Man of ‘Intangibles’
I know real time statistics are a tough pill to swallow. Some are subjective, and many don’t have much real merit, but you can still have some fun with them and pick out some qualities of a player. They’re also loved by people who seem to dislike Phaneuf, which is odd because..
..he’s actually pretty awesome if you use them.
You can’t knock Phaneuf for not throwing the body around. Even if the ACC was greasing the stats up a bit, Phaneuf paces out to be the second most frequent hitter on the list, over double the average, and in the top three by an extremely considerable margin. Not often are big money defencemen this physical, and he has that element.
He also isn’t afraid to get in front of the puck either, ranking second of the bunch in blocked and averaging 30 more than his peers. He gives away the puck a little more, and takes it away a little less, which can definitely be seen as a fault in some respects, but his total interactions with the puck are high.
The most amazing part? LOOK AT HIS MISSED SHOTS! He’s BELOW the average! He’s the 5th lowest on the list! Hold up, hold up…
Death By Reputation
Aren’t missed shots one of Phaneuf’s biggest knocks against him? This gets said by everybody and James Reimer’s mother, but the numbers show a high percentage of pucks going in when they hit the net, and not as many wide shots as you’d think were happening.
A lot of this has to do with the Echo Chamber that is our media and fanbase. It’s the same echo chamber that wanted Phil Kessel run out of town. It’s the same echo chamber that concluded that Nazem Kadri was fat because he had below-curve fitness rankings on a very fit Marlies roster. It’s the same echo chamber that thinks James Reimer has a bad high glove (like every goalie ever), and poor rebound control (with no quantifiable statistical evidence). It’s the same echo chamber that has run players of similar status out of town over cold streaks (Larry Murphy) and contract skepticism (Bryan McCabe).
The echo chamber works the other way as well, making heroes out of role players and those who turn out better than expected. But often, when something sticks, it sticks. Missed shots will stick for a while yet, as will "taking dumb penalties" (despite being pretty decent in that regard), as will "getting caught" when he’s stuck playing defence for two because the Leafs are experimenting with another fringe NHLer on his pairing again.
There’s also a misunderstanding on how some of these stats work from the general public. Plus minus is still seen by many as a strong defensive metric. Giveaways, while not exactly good, are made to look like the worst thing one can do, even though they imply initial possession and lots of time with the puck (hence the top list being littered with star players). Even if Phaneuf was missing a lot of shots, he would be at least putting the puck in the direction of the net. Trust me when I say that this isn’t seen by many; I was part of, if not the centrefold of the "run McCabe out of town" movement, and pointed at all of these stats at the time and gained a lot of support from the "average fan".
Phaneuf also gets a lot of his "overrated" attention from people who are looking for a return to his rookie season, where he scored 20 goals at the age of 20, followed by two 17 goal years. It’s important to remember that he came in at the perfect time to be a one dimensional offensive defenceman, immediately after the 2005 lockout. This was an era where powerplays were handed out like candy, defence was ignored, and Jonathan Cheechoo scored 56 goals. Phaneuf was practically a fourth forward and powerplay specialist early in his career, and has evolved into a player you trust to shut down the best forwards in the world while still contributing offensively.
In most worlds, that would be appreciated. In Phaneuf’s world, he’s stuck with people wanting the numbers of a winger.
Dion Phaneuf, Man of Real Intangibles
So far, we have Dion Phaneuf as a player who produces more than solid numbers for an even higher price range than he’s expecting. But what else is there to boost him beyond the statistics? Intangibles are often overstated, but in the case of a franchise face and captain, they’re definitely important.
Even the little things. Phaneuf may not sound like he’s giving a TED talk when he speaks to the media, but he knows how to deal with the climate and say the right things. He’ll take responsiblity when he doesn’t have to, and he’s got a knack for giving just enough insight in a quote that there isn’t a felt need to press further. It keeps pressure off his teammates, which is awesome to have in such an agressive market.
He’s also at the forefront of team charity initiatives, making sure to be involved even when unneccessary. One of my favourite examples is his initiative to have every member of the team donate at least one luxury box to a good cause this season. He personally donates one every game to the Hospital for Sick Children, and has spent over $350,000 on it since coming to Toronto.
Another thing I’ve noticed; internal locker room issues haven’t been a topic in a very long time. Every generation of the roster Leafs seems to have a scandal, but we’ve heard nothing since his arrival. Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s the Media Relations team being stellar at covering things up, or maybe, just maybe, Dion has found a way to keep his room happy with each other, and have their respect.
These aren’t really things that make his dollar value go up, but they’re the type of things that make you more comfortable with him being a part of this team until the end of this decade, and maybe beyond. if you’re going to pay a guy franchise player money, you better make sure he can represent your franchise well, which I think he’s done a good job of, and will continue to do so over time.
A Matter of Dollars
Now, to get to the main point. The first question is simple – what exactly is Phaneuf worth? I think based on his performance compared to his peers, a contract in the range of 7.75 to 8 million dollars over 6 or 7 years wouldn’t have been an unrealistic demand on his part. Even the areas where he falters a bit are still very good in the grand scheme of things, and you’re ultimately going to be hard pressed to find a player in his age range that will do more for you for less, even if you ignored the assets you’d have to give up for them in their "value".
As for why he’s asking for less, you’d have to ask him. Maybe he and his agents have bought into his own anti-hype, but I doubt that they’d put less effort into a situation that means millions of dollars to them than I did into this post that means a couple of comments. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if this is a situation where Dion is happy to be here, knows the Leafs are against the wall for the next year or two in a cap sense, and is throwing a bone of commitment. The fact that a number this close to his current deal is coming out eight months before free agency is particularly telling.
As for what exactly the end result will be? I don’t expect the Leafs to chip that number significantly lower, but they will get something out of it. If long term is their focus, Phaneuf will likely come in at the 6.7-6.9 million range over 6 or 7 years. If not, I could see him getting the 7.15 over a shorter term. Either way, he deserves that and more.
The Leafs are really fortunate to have somebody as good as Dion Phaneuf on their back end. Acquired in one of the biggest trade wins in recent team history, Dion has evolved into a stellar all around defenceman who can put points up on the board, impose his will on his opponents, shut down star players, and tolerate playing with not so good ones. Off the ice, he maintains the room, says the right things, and is a great example of how an athlete should be in the community.
Really, he’s too good for a market that likes to tear their talent down. Yet, somehow, he’s convinced himself that his preference is to put up with our crap for another seven years.
Dion Phaneuf is the face of the modern-day Toronto Maple Leafs. It shouldn’t be any other way. Pay the man.
Shoutout to @alexanderjbroad for the photo, and anybody who sat down and read this front to back.