Rumors began circulating from north of the border this weekend that the Toronto Maple Leafs are shopping their captain Dion Phaneuf. While it’s not unusual for a team to try and move its captain, it is odd to see it happen so soon after inking a contract extension.
In fact, Phaneuf’s most recent extension won’t even kick in until July 1st where he’s set to make $49 million over the next seven years. We haven’t seen a case of “buyer’s remorse” this quick since the last time Toronto decided to ante up for an overrated veteran (*cut to the video montage of David Clarkson’s highlights with the Leafs.*)
But when you look at it a little closer, it should come as no surprise the Leafs are apparently shopping their captain. New team president Brendan Shanahan made his bed with Randy Carlyle this year. When a team chokes away a playoff spot over the past month in the fashion Toronto did, heads should roll. While Toronto cleared the decks of all their assistants, Carlyle was given a temporary reprieve and will be behind the bench to start the season. At least Shanahan is proving his incompetence isn’t just isolated to handing out suspensions.
So with Carlyle in place, the overhaul will be focused on the overpriced and overrated talent on the roster. However, the Leafs have 12 players under contract for 2014/15 already who eat up $48,719,167 of the projected $71,100,000 (stick tap to capgeek.com for the numbers). This doesn’t leave a heck of a lot of room for improvement via free agency. It gets worse in the 2015/16 season with nine guys totalling nearly $42 million in space, not including goalie Jonathan Bernier or center Nazem Kadri whom both will be restricted free agents in the summer of 2015.
Take a look at the long term deals Toronto has wed itself to: $5,250,000 for Clarkson through 2019/20. $4,200,000 for Tyler Bozak through 2018/19. $5,250,000 for Joffrey Lopul through 2017/18. Outside of Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk, there isn’t much in terms of game-breakers in the organization.
So why are the Leafs shopping Phaneuf now? Even before the team collapsed the final month of the season, Toronto’s possession stats led many people to question how they could have been so successful. Part luck and part heroic goaltending, the cushion the Leafs built was a mirage that the league finally figured out when Bernier went down with injury. No doubt that Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis realized that the team as currently constructed has little shot in the foreseeable future to surpass the Bruins or Canadiens in the Atlantic Division.
So is the Leafs shopping Phaneuf the sign of a rebuild coming in Toronto? While that would be the wise thing for the organization, there are too many bad contracts here to overhaul the club completely. By at least ridding itself of the captain it’ll help partially remove the stench of this past year’s failures. And despite his massive contract, Phaneuf holds value in the league on the myths of his offensive and top pairing prowess. Of course he hasn’t provided either of those attributes in several seasons, but his name alone can get many a team excited at the potential. Hell, Brian Burke traded for him once already…why not a second time to reunite Phaneuf with his original squad?
Phaneuf’s $7 million cap hit could be spread out among two or three other quality players. Would that money be more wisely spent on a free agent defenseman like Matt Greene and the rest of it towards a solid third-line forward or backup goalie? For a thin roster with little help on the horizon from its farm system, Shanahan is going to have to be efficient with every dollar at his disposal.
So while the team tries to backpedal and say anyone on the team is available for the right price, everyone knows most of those available players are toxic. Toronto should be able to fetch a first round draft pick and prospect or young roster player in return for Phaneuf who may need to get away from the spot light and captaincy in Toronto to get his game back to his Calgary days.
It’s time for another culture change in Toronto, a familiar tune in Maple Leaf country since 1967.