Should the Maple Leafs sign Dion Phaneuf to a seven-year deal?

In a word, no.

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Dion Phaneuf is 28 and in his physical peak. He’s an excellent defenceman with tremendous talent and the best the Maple Leafs have had in years. He faces the toughest competition in the NHL according to Behind the Net’s metric Corsi Rel QoC metric, and the toughest competition of any NHL defenceman (fifth overall) according to Extra Skater’s Time on Ice QoC metric.

I’ve written in the past that Phaneuf takes a lot of undue heat for his play, but it got to a point this season where I’m not sure I can continue to work under the assertion that Dion Phaneuf is a worthy No. 1 defenceman. A $7-million contract would definitely have him paid as a No. 1, and accounting for salary cap inflation, it wouldn’t be until 2018 or 2019 that the salary cap is high enough that $7-million isn’t an above average cap hit for a No. 1.

The reason I’ve grown salty over an extension like this for Phaneuf is because for the calendar year of 2013, Phaneuf has had dreadful underlying numbers. The Leafs have had dreadful underlying numbers as a whole, but Phaneuf is counted on so much. The recent year has corrupted my view on Phaneuf’s abilities as an able defenceman that can shut down the opposition.

The general rule when you look at defencemen that face a lot of quality of competition is that when you compare it to the shot differential numbers, anything that’s close to even is great, anything that’s above even is Norris Trophy-worthy, and anything below even is forgivable. Here is how Phaneuf’s Relative Corsi (explanation here) stacks up next to players that also face a high quality of competition rate according to our rankings found at ExtraSkater and BehindTheNet:

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Relative Corsi
Zdeno Chara 5 10 9.4
Erik Johnson 11 3 2.9
Shea Weber 12 9 1.3
Ryan McDonagh 18 8 -4.2
Jan Hejda 9 2 -7.2
Dion Phaneuf 1 1 -7.3
Nik Hjalmarsson 3 6 -7.6
Dan Girardi 14 5 -8.1
Johnny Oduya 4 4 -9.1
Carl Gunnarsson 2 7 -9.2

(Behind The NetExtraSkater)

The takeaway from this list is that Ryan McDonagh would probably be in Norris Trophy contention if he weren’t held back by Dan Girardi, that Zdeno Chara is amazing, that Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda are actually a pretty good pairing, and that Phaneuf lies in the murky middle of players you can forgive for their puck-possession transgressions.

The problem I see is that Hjalmarsson and Oduya are not the top paid players on the Chicago Blackhawks. They’re the heavy lifters. I think it’s reasonable to appreciate the work that Oduya and Phaneuf do for Chicago and Toronto while also noting that what they do is not worth a whole lot of money tied against the salary cap for such a long time. Oduya and Hjalmarsson make a little under $7-million against the cap… combined, until Hjalmarsson’s extension (up to $4.1-million) kicks in next year.

When I look at Phaneuf, I just see a risk in tying up cap space to a player that isn’t “great” when it comes to driving play… lately. In 2011-2012, Phaneuf was 10th in BTN’s QoC measurement, and was a +3.3 Relative Corsi. Between 2010-2012, him and Carl Gunnarsson had a 49.3% Corsi rate together, which is very close to even that we can attach “great” to those seasons considering the level of competition they faced.

However there’s some evidence that Phaneuf does relatively better to his teammates when the Leafs are losing. That’s an offensive thing, and probably where much of his good Corsi numbers come from. David Johnson covered this in some pretty good detail over at Hockey Analysis back in May. Here’s a simple chart showing Phaneuf’s Corsi numbers when his team is Down by 1, Tied, or Up by 1, compared to his teammates when they’re on the ice without Phaneuf:

  CF% Tm CF% Difference
Down 1 57% 53.9% 3.10%
Tied 49.5% 49.4% 0.10%
Up 1 45.1% 45.8% -0.70%

(Hockey Analysis)

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Phaneuf is about equal to his teammates in situations where you need to defend, and much better in situations where you need to attack. He’s a very tough defenceman to gauge, because his “best” years are going to fall in years where his team spends a lot of time trailing in the game, and his “worst” years are going to fall in years where the Leafs are winning more.

It’s also looking ahead. I think the Leafs need to find a pairing like Chicago did, getting a couple of moderately-priced players to fill up roster spots that can essentially do the same thing as one top guy. Phaneuf at $7-million means the Leafs will have about $21-million to sign 10 players. Committing to Phaneuf long-term means you’re committing to this Leafs roster that gives up shots, doesn’t take many, and wins games by hanging on to the skin of its teeth.

I like Phaneuf, but I’m very wary about locking him up to a big contract.

Figures via CapGeek


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  • Mason from NC

    As you display, Phaneuf’s CF is nearly equal to his teammates in Tied situations (+0.10%) and Down 1 situations (-0.70%). His CF is much better (+3.10%) in Up 1 situations.

    You wrote that he’s “much better in situations where you need to attack.” Not sure that’s the case, as you also point out that committing to Phaneuf is committing to a roster that “wins games by hanging on to the skin of its teeth.”

    That note aside, good analysis, especially re: the rising cap and how long it will take for $7M to apply to #2 dmen (excuse my prose).

    I’d like to hear what you think would be a fair hit and term for Phaneuf. Although yours might be more the place to look at hockey metrics and then judge contracts (or rumoured contracts), rather than hypothesize contracts.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Instead of rushing further into this “accelerated rebuild” and committing cap and term to players I’d like to see management think hard and long about taking a step backwards to take two steps forward. I think a more in tune GM would question if the skill level and the underlying shot differentials are more indicative of a team that will top out as a good playoff/wildcard team rather being the core of a stanley cup contender.

    The leafs team is strangely constructed with cap and roster spots tied up on the wings in general and in particular on offensive minded forwards while skimping on the quality at centre. And in the back end, they have big amount of roster spots locked up in puck moving dmen and are lacking quality stay home defenders. Pessimistically, this makes me think that a player Gardiner is trade bait for a better version of the “luke schenn” type player.

    But given the state of team and the quality of players offloading some veterans players and continuing to build the team for the future makes sense. I’m not talking about tanking, but rather accumulating young assets, picks that can be traded for cap efficient and productive players or be used to draft prospects.

    To me, this looks like MLSE and Nonis’s goals is to build a “good” playoff team but not necessarily a stanley cup contender.

  • Jeremy Ian

    I would not devote such a large portion of my salary cap to Phaneuf. I would give an offer sheet to PK Subban. The Leafs should have given Drew Doughty an offer back in 2011. I would rather have a Doughty or Subban than the draft choices. Better to overpay for someone who can make a difference than to pay the “market rate” for someone who cannot. The goal for the Leafs is not to just make it into the playoffs – but to WIN A STANLEY CUP! This team has a few ingredients that could be part of a Stanley Cup Champion. Phaneuf could be but not at 10% of the salary cap.

    Leaf fans need to look at the Western Conference – Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, LAK, San Jose – those are good teams. The Leafs are not even on a par with Vanc, Minn, PHX, Dallas. Look at this team realistically. It is not very good. Keeping Phaneuf around will not make it any better.

    • Jeremy Ian

      The issue pivots around what the predicted increase in the ceiling of the cap is — which determines the share of the payroll. My understanding is that the predicted increase in the cap will be 25% in the next 3 years (to compensate for the cut-back this year from $70m to $64m. 55% by the time the current CBA lapses in 2022. This means that Phaneuf’s share of the payroll will decline sharply, especially in the early years of his contract — which is precisely when all the other pretenders are loosening their purse-strings (Rangers, Flyers, et al) to land exactly what the Leafs want.

      By 2022, we’ll be looking at a cap of $100m.

      For payroll implications, have a look:

      Dion’s current Relative Compensation is 10.1%; with a 7 x 7 contract, it would decline to 8.75%.

      Cam’s numbers ask us to weigh the marginal advantage of Phaneuf’s performance indices to the marginal price. This is correct. But it’s also static.

      Throw in projected figures on payroll, and add the opportunity costs (the foregone cost of the next best alternative), and the jury on Phaneuf is not just hung; it would come out in favor of Carlyle’s eventual deal.

      • Jeremy Ian

        Well then I suppose we shouldn’t worry too much about Clarkson’s boat anchor of a contract and nor Bozak’s because the cap is rising. We can’t argue it both ways and I don’t see Phaneuf’s contract providing sufficient value (but he does provide more value then Clarkson to the team).

        The general problem (and not just Phaneuf) is the leafs are inefficiently using cap space forcing the team to play AHL tweeners like Fraser and Ranger as depth defenders. Heck in past year bad cap management (with injuries) forced us to pair Aulie or Kostka or Holzer with Phaneuf. There are impacts to mismanaging cap space especially to team depth.

        And we need to stop the excuse of needing to find Phaneuf a quality pairing partner. When the cap is mismanaged and Phaneuf is overpaid like a Norris quality Lidstrom that could carry an Ian White then he reaps criticism of having to play with Holzer or Gunnar. Phaneuf needs to be paid competitively and the savings used to find him an adequate pairing partner better then Gunnar.

        • Jeremy Ian

          Fair enough. But there’s a difference between an excuse and a reason. I am not giving excuses; I am offering the reasons that package into a strategy.

          If you are going to get rid of Phaneuf (who, of all the players pilloried by the Nonis-pessimists is surely the one the team should spend money on), you have to be consistent and throw the whole scheme overboard and start all over. Signing Clarkson and Bozak but watching Phaneuf skate away… It makes no sense.

          And if you are going to do that, then what?

          I am not convinced that the Leafs are playing miserably because of cap management. None of Cam’s analysis has ever pointed this way. The analysis points to lineup or asset management, not the cap.

          Our 4th line woes have nothing to do with the cap.

          The zone clearing tactics don’t work.

          Kadri’s not the right anchor for the first line (better Holland, in my view).

          Overplaying McClement….

          The patterns have nothing to do with the cap.

          I am as frustrated as the rest of us, but I am just praying that we don’t commit what’s called a “base rate fallacy” — which blames a single variable or trait when multiple, general, and contextual information explain a problem.

          I fear that we Leaf fans have grown so pessimistic that it’s hard to see the silver linings and possibilities…

          See what you started, Cam?

          • STAN

            My take is Nonis is still delusional from the leafs’ playoff semi-success last year and thinks this team is competitive and stand up with a cup contender like the Bruins.

            However, I believe the truth is closer to what Cam has been suggesting (small sample size season, luck, playoffs and a close game 7) has made us fans think the team is better then it maybe.

            Nonis’s moves are consistent with a contending team and core. But if the second, as some data suggests is true, then how to build up the core with talent? Nonis will be stuck in no man’s land with a team just good enough to compete for playoffs and limited cap flexibility. But of a team that is not receiving high draft picks to take the team to that next level (that much needed 1C etc).

          • Jeremy Ian

            I’s true, over-performance can lead one to capitalize on chance — make decisions based on error-prone information or data (small sample, blah blah). Otherwise known as the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, when players who appear on the cover of SI then watch their performance slide (and, of course, everyone else is watching the same), as if the cover had anything to do with it.

            Do you really think Nonis is that clueless? A team that rolled off a cliff the year before, squeaked into the playoffs last year, collapsed the way it did, struggled for the past two months…? I know the Leafs have distinguished themselves for a managerial history that makes you wonder whether there’s some kind of ritual vow to botch things up. But …

            I’m willing to give him a little more due.

            Actually, my hope was that last year’s over-performance gave Nonis a taste of the elixir.

            Frankly, I can’t get a good fix on Nonis. Sometimes, I see him as a satisficer, opting for an alternative that meets some minimal condition (say, popularity in the case of Clarkson, or dumping Mac to please the coach). But for each satisficing move there’s an optimizing one. The trade for Holland. The Kessel deal. Bolland. The deals with Kadri and Franson.

            Just so I am clear on what you want: you want a team destined to compete for a Stanley Cup while maximizing cap flexibility and has future high draft picks? Jeez. No wonder Nonis falls so short!

          • STAN

            In a ideal cap world you
            – treat cap space as sacred and avoid too many inefficent/overpaying for talent with long terms
            – accumulate desired assets (picks/prospects), efficient players on good contracts. These can be traded for elite talent if and when they become available.
            – offer full value and max contracts when the talent warrants it (crosby, toews, pietroangelo, doughty etc). These are the type of core and elite players that are build around.

            Paying max for a very good player like Phaneuf or a worse an average one like Clarkson who on an elite team would be a support player is not a recipe for cup success. These rationalities that the contract is fine because the UFA market will offer that or because without the player the team defence is screwed is not a smart way to build a team. That is fixing one mistake with another.

            I’d argue a rebuild doesn’t makes sense until their is plan around G, 1C and 1D. Phaneuf/Kessel/Goalie 1A/1B are a good players and enough of a core to build a successful playoff team but not a cup contender. Rielly might develop into something special but the leafs roster/prospect depth does not stack up to cup contenders.

            As for Nonis, the moves he makes looks like MLSE are building a decent playoff team but are not building a cup contending team. He is following the Canucks/Ducks model of UFA/trades and drafting to build a team. The ducks cup team is probably the only team without a true 1C (Andy Macdonald). But even then, this leaf team doesn’t match talent with that team.

            That said, giving Nonis the benefit of the doubt here but looking at the Ducks as a model. Let’s say, Gauthier becomes Getzlaf, Reilly is younger version of Niedermayer and Kessel is a more expensive Selanne and Phaneuf is our more expensive Pronger. Bolland new contract will be our more expensive Pahlsson. Kadri is Macdonald?. Then the leafs sign a Beauchimen, draft a Perry (Biggs lol), Clarkson is more expensive Kunitz. I’m not seeing it. The pieces we have I are in less flexible and less competitive contracts. And sure I could be wrong.

  • STAN

    Also, Phaneuf is misused on the leafs. Phaneuf like Reilly and Gardiner are naturally puck moving dmen but Phaneuf is unselfishly asked to play a shutdown role but his offensive prowess is his talent. Phaneuf can and will probably continue to improve and become smarter defensively but he will always be a bit behind his peers. That 7M is what we would pay Phaneuf for Letang type two way soft defensively player. But Phaneuf is being payed for Orpik/Martin time of a game (with some upside offense).

    In terms of cap management, I would have considered a Phaneuf trade for pure shutdown guy (younger Willie Mitchell type) plus pick/prospects and keep Gardiner/Reilly on the leafs for the future. This leaf team is not that good (corsi wise) and sure Phaneuf helps it but not enough to compensate for the massive holes on team.

    And also this reminds me of the Grabbo situation where they didn’t trade him in his UFA year because Kadri wasn’t ready to play #2C. But then in future as a new player emerges (kadri) and they mismanage the asset by letting him walk. Nonis thinks that the rich contracts of Phaneuf, Clarkson and Bozak are going to be tradeable in their final years but Grabbo and Liles tells us that is not always the case.

  • Jeremy Ian

    But if not Phaneuf, who? This is the problem with these dollar comparators: does a man dying of thirst in the desert care that that flask of water he just bought from the Bedouin cost him $1000?

  • Jeremy Ian

    If this deal does go through, it reminds me a lot of the deal Brian Campbell signed back in 08-09 (8 year, $57 million). Campbell was a 29 year old defensman who had played great the past few years. That deal seemed good the first few years, but now as Campbell enters age 34, a $7+ million cap hit is a lot for an older defensman. This could easily happen to Phaneuf in his later years. A shorter deal would be a lot better

  • Jeremy Ian

    I’m with Mason — what’s the opportunity cost? If mgt lets Phaneuf go, there’ll be a lot more pressure to fill a big gap with FA. Doubt you’ll do better, but I’d be interested in your alternatives.

    • Jeremy Ian

      Phaneuf is tradeable. Phaneuf is a solid dman but this team is broken and not just Carlyle coaching.

      On the one hand people think the leafs are playoff team so we can’t trade Phaneuf and on the other hand people don’t fully appreciate that the shot differential are telling us something about this team just like they told us something when Grabbo was extended.

      They are a wild card team and Phaneuf like Grabbo makes the better but neither compensate sufficiently for the bigger issues that exist.

      • Jeremy Ian

        Ah, that’s an interesting scenario. What’s Phaneuf’s trade value? It depends on what’s on offer. The fact is, what the Leafs need — a No. 1 center and a rock on D — is what is most scarce in the League. Why trade away an asset that’s in relative surplus? On the other hand, Rielly’s play — and I can hear Cam’s warning about the low sample size — changes the calculus. Along with the younglings in the system.

        But then the issue is why the other contracts, like Clarkson’s (boy I can hear the screaming now), Lupul, Bozak? This is the veteran core and it’s built for the next five years to ride Kessel’s coat-tails. We may not see this as a winning strategy, and it has holes throughout, but why scrap it now, before it has a chance to prove its worth?

        I am not convinced that this team is broken. I am not even convinced that Carlyle’s “system” can’t be made to work, if he can be more innovative.

        I would not confuse the absence of some parts with a failure of the design.

        At the same time, you have to know when the design is flawed and study Cam’s numbers carefully for trends. But it would be premature to come to that judgment now.

  • STAN

    Phaneuf simply makes too many bad plays. Giveaways, dumps outs to nowhere senseless icings from bad passes, not to mention scoring on his own goaltender several times a season. He’s just not in the elite league.

    But, if Leaf management thinks he is, it stands to reason that many of other 29 GMs think so too. If so, I’d be fielding offers.

    Then when it becomes clear that no team would value him as a number one guy, offer him three years at $7M per, and DON’T ever include a No Trade Claus. It makes no sense and hamstrings the team.