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If you could only re-sign one of Phaneuf or Kessel, what’s your inclination?

Not that I spend all my time thinking about such matters, but when I do sit back and contemplate what Dave Nonis is trying to build with the Leafs, I do wonder about priorities and next steps.  (That’s not a knock on Nonis—I simply mean priorities in an overall sense.)  And one of the priority areas—and next steps—that I’ve thought about lately, as we are now venturing closer and closer to the beginning of training camp, is money allocation going forward.

Let me be clear:  as I’ve long acknowledged here, I am  fully and absolutely incompetent when it comes to issues like cap management. I just have no expertise in this area.  But I do know that, in a cap system, you can’t, say, spend all your money on two or three guys (kind of like Tampa Bay seemed to for a few years) and hope you can pull a rabbit out of your hat to fill out the roster with a bunch of hard-working pluggers who will somehow win you a championship.  I suppose that could work, but it's unlikely.

Most NHL rosters nowadays are meticulously built, with an eye toward having some semblance of  scoring punch on the first two lines. Then you have some grit and tenacity (and a bit of skill, too) on your third and even fourth lines. You want a really good goaltender, of course, and four defensemen who will play significant minutes, and two other defenders who you hope will log anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes a night and won’t hurt you when they are out there. And you certainly need blueline depth that isn't costly.  (Primarily solid AHL'ers and emerging young players who don't have big-time salaries.)

That’s not very scientific, but you get the idea.

So now, I well recognize, as I have posted here myself of late, that the Leafs have short-term needs, as in closing out the contracts for Kadri and Franson. Working all that out, one way or the other, is the immediate priority.

But I’m also aware, as you all are, that some decisions also have to be made pretty soon about other more experienced and frankly, more valuable players.  As I write this, two of the names that spring to mind are those of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.

I’ve written about Kessel here this summer.  Some of you know my view—I think Nonis needs to extend the game-changing winger. Not because I think he’s the best thing since sliced bread, or because he has demonstrated he can lead us to a championship.  (Heck, I was thrilled that he showed he could play under pressure against his old nemesis, the Bruins, in a single playoff round. But at least it was something to build on…) It’s just that he’s the biggest threat the Leafs have, the most dangerous guy on the ice for either side many nights—though young Kadri showed some of that in his game at times last season, too.

To me, you either have to trade Kessel very soon to give another team sufficient time to try and sign him and also to get something really, really good for him in return....or pay him one of those ridiculously long contracts in the 8 year, 8 million a year range. Will I be happy about that?  Not necessarily, but I think all these salaries are out of whack with reality and common sense, so I’ll leave that alone.  I just believe, strongly, that Nonis cannot allow a lame-duck season from Phil the thrill, and do the on-gain off-again negotiation dance with Kessel’s agent all season long—and then expect to sign the guy before he hits free-agency in July of 2014.  I don’t see a happy ending there.

He needs to be extended—and soon—or dealt before he suffers a serious injury, for example, and all hell breaks loose and management doesn’t know what to do.

But that’s the Kessel situation.  The elephant in the room is the captain—the aforementioned  Phaneuf. What do we do with him?

I know Dion has his legion of supporters within the Leaf fan base, and understandably so.  By the end of last season I was, somewhat grudgingly, acknowledging he does a lot for the club.  He logs those massive minutes, does hit guys sometimes and can make a contribution offensively, though he is not the most creative player around.

It’s just that I wonder if Phaneuf—as I’ve long said here, christened way too soon by Brian Burke as the “captain” virtually upon his arrival—is the kind of player we want to be coughing up 6 million or more a year for six or years (or longer), just because he too, like Kessel, is a UFA in less than a year, if I’m not mistaken.

Like I have concerns with what David Clarkson will be in three years (I think he’ll be an asset the next couple of seasons, maybe beyond, but we’ll see), I wonder if Kessel will be a player who gets better and better and more “complete” (like Yzerman, Modano and others before him) or will he be one of those 30-something forwards who become a shell of what they were in their prime. But at least if he signs one of those awful 8-year deals, he’ll still be in his early 30s when a possible decline arises.  By then, the Leafs would have had him in his peak years of production.

Similarly, though, will Phaneuf be one of those defensemen who get better with age? He will be 29 before the coming season ends.  That’s hardly old, though he has already played what, 600 or more NHL games, excluding playoffs?  He has some wear on his tires, especially with the minutes he has played in his career, and notably under Wilson and Carlyle in Toronto.  Will be age gracefully like the silky smooth Lidstrom (not that that’s Dion’s game) or the hard-edged Chris Chelios?  (Who played until he was  60 or something—at least it seemed that way…)

Or will Dion find his game falling off in his 30s, under the demands of his often-physical style and the  ice time and responsibility he has earned.  He is not the fleetest defenseman afoot to begin with—will he compensate as the years go by?

It’s funny:  I respect Kessel’s abilities (how can you not?) and he is an exciting player, to be sure.  But while I have long wondered whether he will ever be a leader and about his ability to be a clutch player, he is a better all-around performer than when he first arrived in Toronto.  Ultimately, you have to run with someone, and he seems like a guy that the brass will want to keep around (again, unless they don’t think they can sign him, and can get a solid return…). I’m not a guy who has always necessarily believed fully in Kessel but he seems like a fit—now.  Maybe I’m wrong.

On the other hand, would I miss Phaneuf if he was gone?

I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  I see all the good things he brings, but (and again, I may be way off base) I’ve never seen him as any kind of real leader on or off the ice.  And for me, he’s just not that high-end, stud defenseman Leaf fans long for, though he is compensated that way.  (I recognize that others may feel differently.)

I know I’m an outsider and not aware of the “room” and player relationships and all that stuff.  I just don’t know if he is that guy, in terms of being a player other Leafs look to for inspiration or whatever.

Of course if he was not here, his minutes would have to be replaced, but he’s not the only guy in the league who sees a lot of ice.  (We'd have the same issue if he was injured for any period of time.)  Those things tend to take care of themselves.  Jake Gardiner most nights looks like he could play thirty minutes without taking a deep breath.  I’m not suggesting he brings all the characteristics that Dion does, but he brings things the captain doesn’t—and couldn’t.

Yes, right now, we need to see the Kadri and Franson contractual posturing settled.  But there's more to do.

So I’ll put it to you:  hey, maybe Nonis wants to and can actually re-sign them both before they become free-agents.  But if he can’t, or doesn’t plan to, if you had your druthers (someday I’ll find out exactly what druthers are…) and had to pick one or the other, who would you extend—Kessel or the captain?  Who is more valuable and indispensible to the Maple Leafs?  Who cannot be replaced?

Let me know…


  1. I actually think you might be able to sign both. Phaneug might be quite reasonable in salary negotiations. Though he can be wooden in interviews, I get the impression that Phaneuf actually likes being the captain in T.O. and would like to continue being the big man in the biggest market. I don't know that he could get a similar level of status anywhere else.

    However, if I have to pick a guy it's Kessel. Kessel is better in his role as a goal scorer than Phaneuf is as a defender. We often don't realize it but Kessel is a consistent, goal scoring machine. Phil isn't just good, he is elite. How elite?

    Over the last three years only three players have scored more that again only three in the NHL are better over the last years: Stamkos, Perry and Ovechkin. That's the company Phil is among

    Phaneuf isn't at that level among defencemen peers on just about every metric (other than ice time) plus Kessel has more upside. We saw a new level against Boston in playoffs. It would kill me if he went somewhere else and quickly won the Rocket Richard trophy and became a more dominant player and he is that close that he could win the Richard some year.

    Pay Phil, he is only 25 and in his prime. You rarely, if ever, get to trade for a player like that, so why let him go if you already have him?

    1. As usual, I like your thinking, DP. Thanks for kicking off the conversation...let's see how others feel.

    2. I agree with the reasoning here behind choosing Kess over Dion ... And while I too think they can sign them both I part ways when it comes to why. Dion won't be giving a "break" to MLSE but he has been over paid for most of this contract (not the past 2 seasons).

      If you look at when players tend to decline it just makes sense for his cap hit to be equal or lower to its current state in the next contract. I'd say five years at: 7, 7, 6, 4.5, 4.5; (CP=5.8) is very reasonable. Even if I bump the last two years up $500k his cap hit drops by half mil each season. The benefi of such a contract is also precedent based as, while I think most looking at the figures and age dance would agree it looks reasonable, if your captain has accepted a hit at that level to play top 3 minutes it looks good for other contract negotiations.

      With 2.5 mil coming off the books in detained salary, and the ceiling expected to be as high as 70mil, I don't think we're in trouble next year at all.

      Additionally, that eighth year we can over Kessel is severely undervalued. Think about the difference between 8 years at 7.5 vs. 7 at 8mil ... Kessel makes an extra 4mil over all, is still in the "early 30s window" when he signs his next contract, and we get to save $500k again.

      The cap crunch of these past few weeks has got everybody crazy but this is the only speed bump financially in the foreseeable future. I even think Bolland's salary either remains static or drops after this year. He was paid to play a different rolls than we'll be slotting him in this year (I.e. scoring line rather than shut down). He may not be enamoured by the circumstance, but tat change means a role that isn't paid as highly in today's NHL.

    3. A well developed perspective, Anon. Thank you.

  2. Despite the fact that Phaneuf would certainly be missed for at least a year if we didn't resign him (unless we were able to bring in another minute munching defender), I'd rather (druther!) keep Kessel.

    I just think he's harder to replace (especially since we have some significant possibilities amongst the prospects.

    1. Thanks, InTimeFor62. We'll see if that's the prevailing opinion of those who visit and post here...

  3. So this is what a Leaf's Sophie's Choice looks like?

    I hate the idea of trading your captain (or having him play as a lame duck captain). But I equally hate the idea of trading the player you acquired for a king's ransom.

    I think the answer is you must find a way to keep both. If you trade either one you'll almost immediately be trying to find a player to do what you just traded away.

    1. Hi Steve- I hear you. It amy well be that Nonis will find a way to keep both, though I'm a bit skeptical as to how that will happen, given other salary demands around the corner.

      You're last point is well stated: often times, you end up turning around and trying to replace the guy you traded or let walk with another player just like him...

  4. Michael I think that Kessel gets signed for sure and should be kept. Looking back when they lost that heartbreaker to Boston, he seemed to take it harder than all of them. We need players like that who can't stand losing. Though Phaneuf plays big minutes and is the captain the fact that there are quite a number of defensemen in the system leads me to think that he is more dispensable than Kessel. If Reilly is the real deal and Gardner continues to progress, not to mention Franson, I can see them moving Phaneuf or letting him go in free agency. That is why his name has been floated in trade rumours. As an aside, perhaps Clarkson is like another tough winger, Brendan Shanahan, who played until he was 40 and was quite productive until he retired.

    1. If Clarkson was a Shanahan-type player, Leaf supporters would be over the moon, purch - without question!

      As for Dion, your point of view may well represent what a segment of the Leaf population feels: good player, but not irreplaceable, despite the minutes he plays.

  5. It does sound strange, as much as I realize goal scoring is way down from when I started watching hockey, but a consistent 35-goal threat is what amounts to an elite sniper in today's NHL. The numbers add up. Phil Kessel is as much an invaluable goal scorer as there is in the NHL. He is only 25 years old, so even a long-term contract shouldn't reach him too far into a decline. I absolutely think they need to re-sign him more than Phaneuf. I do like Phaneuf, he is a serviceable number one d-man. It's arguable what his value is as captain, and I just don't see that being a huge factor in keeping him or not. The Leafs have quite a bit of depth defensively and I really do believe that the young prospects on defense will emerge to the point that losing Phaneuf would be cushioned greatly. So if it comes down to it, for me the choice is easy. Keep Kessel.

    1. Yours would seem to be the prevailing view so far, Pete. I realize in the "real" world it won't necessarily come down to a choice between the two with the cap rising in a year, but other factors may come into play, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one.

  6. This might be coming a day late, but I'll be the Devil's Advocate.

    First off, I need to say that I think the Leafs need to re-sign both players fore reasons mentioned above.

    But, if they can't, there are good reasons to re-sign Phaneuf over Kessel.

    The first is what they could get in return.

    For some reason, Phaneuf isn't respected by the league (many think he's over rated). I think that Kessel is under rated himself, but he's the easier of the two to market because he's a scoring machine whose improved his overall play as he's aged.

    So, the question I ask is could Kessel be easier to trade to get a top pairing defenseman (to make Phaneuf better) or could Phaneuf be easier to trade to get a top centre (to make Kessel better)?

    I have to say that Kessel would be more likely to get what we need.

    Yes, we will then have less scoring. However, I really believe that defense wins in the playoffs. Furthermore, this team is a high scoring team that needs defensive help. Losing scoring seems the better proposition than losing defense.

    As for the playoffs. To win, a team requires a veteran defenceman to put out there when the going gets tough. I think that the Leafs have some great young offensive defencemen, and they're only going to get more. But inexperienced offensive guys can't shut the door in the playoffs. While Kessel did turn it up this past playoffs - guys as good as Ovechkin, Toews etc. can and have been shut down before. So could Kessel. Getting a solid guy to play with Phaneuf would make this a better playoff team for the long run.

    1. That's a very interesting twist on this discussion, Anon. Thanks for sharing that line of thought. Wonder how others feel?

  7. Watch for this issue to be all the talk this upcoming season (Could it ever be any other way in leaf land?)

    I feel like re-signing both of these players is crucial and may even be possible, but even though this seems to be the theme here.... Re-signing Kessel is a must. Not only does he consistently put up points every single year since he's come over from Boston, Kessel leads by example by bringing it every single night, not to mention he's been healthy every year (knock on wood). Because of his top-10 scoring finishes in the last two years, Kessel may ask for a salary around 7.5 mil. Although I think Leaf nation would be a lot happier with somewhere around 6. (Let's be honest, people are going to complain no matter what)

    Now Dion is a different matter entirely. While I would never call myself a "Phaneuf-fanatic", I fully understand what he brings to the table... And I believe that we would sorely miss him if we let him walk. If our captain would take a pay cut of about a Mil bringing his salary to 5.5 that would be perfect, if you think that's too much money take a look at Gunner who makes 3.2 mil and can't hold a candle to Dion. If our captain decides that he's worth about 7 Mil or more then it might be time to ship him to his hometown (Edmonton).

    That being said I think that the Leaf's ultimate goal should be to re-sign both of them, Go Leafs Go!!!

    1. Solid post, Luc. Someone remind me- who is the well-established defenseman who recently signed for less than a lot of us thought he might? Would Dion be willing to take a "cut" to stay here as captain? Agents don't tend to think that way so well see.

  8. I also believe that Nonis will find a way to sign both long-term but if I had to choose between the two it would be a no-brainer....

    Kessel would be my choice for many reasons but the main being that we have plenty of depth on D coming up (Gardiner, Reilly, Finn, etc.) and there is always a chance to sign a D in free agency.

    Kessel is a game changer....there simply are not too many players with his shot and scoring ability! That said he will never be the 'leader' that we want but we can get that from others (Lupul, Clarkson, McLement, etc.). Dion can be replaced a lot easier that Kessel....

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Anon. I'm enjoying hearing the various perspectives that Leafers have on this one...

  9. I may be in the minority, but I personally wouldn't sign Phaneuf even if they could afford both Phaneuf and Kessel. I think it is going to cost upwards of $6.5-7M/yr on a long term deal (6-8 years) to get Phaneuf signed and I just don't think he is worth that price. I see Phaneuf as a good offensive defenseman and a mediocre defensive one so I have to wonder if he is really worth keeping with Gardiner, Franson and soon Rielly on the team on cheaper contracts. I'd rather let Phaneuf walk and spend $4-4.5M/yr on a far better defensive defenseman which is what the Leafs really need.

    1. Like you, David, I would not be disposed to pay Phaneuf $7 million a season for one year, let alone on a long-term contract.

      My guess is the Leafs could indeed find some pretty good defensemen at 4+ million. Maybe not quite Phaneuf's equal, but on some days, perhaps even better. Thanks for visiting, David.

  10. If it comes down to choice, I think we should (need to) keep Kessel. Isn´t it almost a no brainer? Keep at all cost a true top line guy on any team in the league or keep at all cost a #2 D-man at his very best on half the teams in the NHL.

    That's how I see our guys. I really appreciate Dion's work and all of his contribuitions but is he a top pairing guy on most other teams?

    We couldn't replace Kessel (unless a Kessel for Stamkos deal comes out of it), but we could replace Dion, via trade, signing, or someone on the farm. Dion does eat up minutes, but that's just half of it. Anyone can play 30 minutes, but few can play 30 minutes well game in and game out. Trying hard isn't enough.

    Of course keeping both is ideal, but if I had to choose, I would certainly keep Kessel.

  11. Thanks for stating your case on this topic, portuguese leaf. So far, most VLM readers seem to be of your persuasion- if they had to choose between the two!

  12. Just to name a few, Leafs have given up forwards such as Mahovlich, Keon, McDonald, Sittler and Thomas prematurely. I don't want to see this happen with Kessell, hence keep him and sign him to a long term contract sooner rather than later.

    This past season four of the top six defensemen lost time or were ineffective because of injury (Gunnarsson-groin, Gardiner-concussion, Liles-concussion and Fraser-skull fracture) all in a shortened season. Presently there is no one on the roster capable of playing Phaneuf's role. I would prefer to see him signed to a five year contract at most. If Nonis lets this drag on he is taking a chance of losing Phaneuf for nothing.

    The only way I can see justification in trading Phaneuf is if management feels that the team is two or three years away from serious contention and they are willing to wait for their young prospects on defense to mature.

    1. We don't know, of course, whether this will ultimately become an "either/or" situation. Perhaps not. But it has generated some interesting discussion here today, Pete Cam. You obviously make a good point when we look back historically and see how many Leafs were jettisoned before their "best before" date. And yes, you need a lot of depth on defense, for the reasons you cite.

      Decisions to be made. Will the players both insist on the max, or will they play ball with Nonis? How badly do they really want to be Leafs? Thanks Pete.

  13. On this one, I agree with the majority of the posts and see Kessel as the more indispensable of the two. If one looks at it from an asset management perspective and how a gm properly uses his resources, kessel cannot have the opportunity to walk for free. One on hand Dion was acquired for next to nothing. A collection of journeymen and perrenial underachievers. Despite his value to the team, they got him for spare parts, so letting an asset of this sort walk isn't always a bad option. Kessel however, is a highly priced priced asset that cost two first rounders and a second to acquire. If he was to slip away for nothing, the trade in retrospective would be the worst Leafs move since Ferguson brought in Toskala. Unless the leafs could get an incredible return on Kessel, they absolutely need to sign him. Phaneuf would be missed, but like many others have said, he can be partially or fully replaced through current prospects, free agency or trade. Players like phil kessel are extremely rare and can never be let to walk away for free, especially when they were traded for and not drafted.

    1. I was nodding along as I was reading your post, Garey. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  14. Hi Michael,

    I find it really interesting that you thought this through from the perspective of what the future of the players look like because, like InTimeFor62 and several others, my first thoughts were to make the decision based on replaceability. And, like several others above, my conclusion would be that Kessel would be harder to replace than Phaneuf. While I believe that Phaneuf has done an understated and vitally necessary job for our Leafs (simply being dependable while the majority of our D has been utterly ordinary) I have to imagine there are more players in the NHL that could have done as good or better than there are players who could have subbed in for Kessel.

    The captaincy is a vital part of the equation though and dismissing Phaneuf on his general play would be an incomplete consideration of the problem Nonis faces. I can't pick out another player on the current roster who is an obvious choice to pick up the C. Like you, I am completely ignorant of what goes on in the room and how he acts as a captain there, so it's impossible to judge his captaincy in that regard. On the ice? Well, one might argue that a captain worth the name would have carried his team on his back through those last 2 minutes of Game 7. Certainly, those are the moments when you want leadership to step in, settle everything down and bring the ship safely in to harbour but let's be fair, Boston was a hair's breadth away from the Stanley Cup and were an awesome team who had played beneath their potential against us. Is it Phaneuf's fault that they brought the pressure of their superiority to bare in those last few moments? Probably not.

    On balance, I'm going with Kessel. Watching his passing game evolve literally took my breath away at times last season. I can't help but think he's a very introspective guy motivated from within rather than without. I can excuse his periods of 'disappearing' because I think we have never showed him the value we place in him and he's the kind of guy who will have his feelings hurt by that. Give him some linemates that show we care and I believe he will relax, collapse into himself and find all the reasons he needs to keep improving and expanding his game as the years go by.

    1. A solid, thoughtful post, KiwiLeaf. We know they are both important players, and face so much scrutiny here, fair or not.

      Most who have commented today at VLM seem to feel that Kessel offers that bit of extra value. And that's no disrespect to Phaneuf. Thanks for taking the time to post on this subject, KiwiLeaf.

  15. Here's another angle on Phaneuf:

    If you did let him go...what are the UFA's in 2014 that you could get to shore up the Leaf's defense?

    Hjalmarsson, Niklas » D CHI 26 $3,500,000 2014 (UFA)

    Girardi, Dan » D NYR 29 $3,325,000 2014 (UFA)

    I like those two guys. I wonder what Girardi gets as a UFA?

    I like this one, but he is getting old:

    Seidenberg, Dennis » D BOS 32 $3,250,000 2014 (UFA

  16. One thing, DP- Seidenberg, as you mention, would indeed be getting toward that other side of the mountain, for sure. That said, in hockey terms, he has certainly been a warrior.

    We here at VLM (I, at least- others may or may not feel the same!) believe the Leafs will need a few real "leaders", playoff-savvy vets when they actually become a contender. Seideneberg would/could be an example of precisely that. Thanks for that update, DP. Interesting.