With their new supposed scorched earth approach this summer and the “Shanaplan” set to take action over the next few years, most of the discussion around the Leafs since the end of this past season has been focusing on two easy targets: the team’s highest-paid forward and highest-paid defenseman.
At times it’s seemed a matter of course both Kessel and Phaneuf will – or at least should be – moved (perhaps even in desperation) to bring the team closer to a clean slate, both roster and cap-wise, though it did cool for a minute there – the Babcock effect I guess. But no matter how the rumor mill spins, to pin Kessel and Phaneuf as two similar pieces that need to be shipped out is a mistake, and this definitely shouldn’t be looked at as a “both or none” type of scenario.
First off, I’ll admit I believe the optics of keeping both are bad. The team has been a wreck for years and it’s tough to sell rebuilding and pain if fans are paying to see the same players again. It’s just not a good look, and this management group needs act on it. But keeping one of these guys sort of makes sense, and you can probably guess who. It’s the one who’s more valuable now and will still be more valuable six years from now.
Here’s something I really enjoyed from Corey Pronman’s recent piece about rebuilding the Leafs, where he talks about young players pushing for top duties on the team in the coming years.
…between the prospects currently in the organization and the draft picks they have this season (and I’ll throw 2012 fifth overall pick Morgan Rielly into that mix), they need at least three of these assets to become true high-end NHL players….if those young players hit — and become top-of-the-lineup players — it will slide the overpaid veterans down the lineup into proper slots, therefore alleviating some of the cap issues the team currently faces.
Personally I think Kessel can fit into that model a lot better than Phaneuf, and here’s why: Kessel is the best forward on this team by a fair margin, and perhaps the only one outside Kadri in the forward group who I’d argue isn’t a complimentary player. He’s been an elite winger, even top-three on the planet for solid stretches over the last few seasons, and it’s tough to imagine him sliding beyond being a top six forward as he approaches the end of his contract.
Here’s a quick look at a great piece by Eric Tulsky on how goal-scorers tend to decline with age:
As Tulsky mentions, passers seem to age better than scorers, which at first doesn’t sound so great for a player like Kessel. If he’s following the path laid out above, he’s already well into his prime and his scoring could start to hit the skids over the next few years, most dangerously in that 33-34 range where you can see it dip in the 65-75% area. But luckily that’s about where his contract ends.
At peak Kessel been a 35-goal-scorer, by contract’s end he could be in the 25 range. But I think that’s easy to live with. [Yes, I’m aware he scored only 25 this past season, but that happens. Ryan Getzlaf had 57 points in 2011-12 and people were calling for his retirement].
It should also be noted Kessel’s been saddled with Bozak for the majority of his time in Toronto, so a true center over the next few years (assuming the Leafs ever get one) might even soften the blow. Kessel is an underrated distributor as well, something he’s improved on since getting to Toronto, and as you can see from the graph his slide shouldn’t be as stark in that regard. Let’s say his assist rate dips to 85% of his peak and the goal-scoring goes to 70%, that’s still a fairly dangerous scorer six years from now – basically a 25-30-55 guy.
Phaneuf on the other hand may already be the third best defenceman on a club that hasn’t cleared the puck out of its own end in about five years, and some have even made the case he was, at most, fourth on the depth chart when Cody Franson was in the fold. The eye test hasn’t been kind to him, as he isn’t particularly mobile (in a game requiring more and more mobility) and doesn’t play a smooth game like Kessel or Rielly, for example. He’s got some tough miles on him.
Now, it isn’t all bad. Phaneuf’s scoring rate over the last three years including the lockout-shortened season is actually 0.44 points-per-game, which translates to 36 points over an 82-game season, so his boxcars are still somewhat impressive (though nowhere near his early years with the Flames).
But for a guy whose defensive play has been criticized so much, 7-million is a lot to pay for 36 points and not much else. Maybe his possession game has been hurt by his quality of teammates or coaching systems, but as it was pointed out in the link to Burtch’s article above, others are playing under the same system and outperforming him, so I have a tough time buying into that. Coaching was a problem, and it won’t be going forward, but elevating play under Babcock should apply to all the Leafs, so Phaneuf is unlikely to improve his performance relative to his peers. At 30, he isn’t likely to take much of a step forward as a possession-driver, and the Leafs can’t continue to pay to find out if he can.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to run Phaneuf out of town, I just believe if one or both of these players has to go, he needs to be the priority. It’s difficult to predict him being an effective player from here on out, and he’s simply older. And yes, I know, the go-to question about moving Phaneuf often becomes “Well, who’s going to take those minutes?” But for a team nowhere near contention, the answer should be someone who isn’t 30 and making a dump truck full of money.
In the battle of who stays and who goes between Kessel and Phaneuf, it just seems Kessel is easier to get a read on in terms of how he can fit into the plan. If both go, I’m fine with it, and it’s sounding more like that will be the case. But I think Kessel should maybe be given a longer look. Both players will see their play fall off, but Phaneuf is further down that road, and his baseline wasn’t as good to begin with.