Two of the longer term concerns entering the 2013-14 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs were the contract statuses of their star players Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.  GM Dave Nonis made good on Kessel’s desire to negotiate before the season, and now the Leafs leading scorer will be in the fold until 2022. Having taken care of the time sensitive work, now Nonis’ sights will be set on re-signing the Leafs captain to a long term deal.  But what’s it going to cost?  Let’s take a look.

For his part, Phaneuf has said he’s open to negotiating a new deal midseason, having done so in Calgary back in 2008.  And why not? The Flames overpaid to lock up a young, budding star defender that had already reached the 20-goal and 60-point plateau by the age of 23.  He’s never managed to repeat either feat since, and was shipped to Toronto two years later as a high-priced disappointment.  Since coming to Toronto, he’s lost and re-found some measure of his scoring touch, while regularly lining up in the toughest defensive assignments.  His role has changed, the cap has risen, the rules have changed, but his paycheque has remained static since then.

To look at what Phaneuf should get, I looked into the last four seasons of data on defensemen (2009-10 through 2012-13).  Amusingly, these happen to be the four worst years of Phaneuf’s career from a statistical standpoint, but probably better reflect his scoring output as the seasons roll on.  Yes, in an eight-year career, two Phaneuf’s worst individual seasons saw him feature 10th and 12th in league scoring among defenders.  So please understand that I used the word ‘worst’ in a relative sense here.

In 277 games over the last four seasons, Phaneuf ranks 23rd in points scored with 134, good for .48 points per game.  More impressively, he ranks 8th in goals (41), power play goals (18) and time on ice (6916 minutes).  It is in that last category where there’s some interesting salary correlations, as six of the seven players ahead of him in TOI over the last four seasons also have higher cap hits (Weber, Chara, Bouwmeester, Doughty, Suter and Boyle).  Only Duncan Keith, signed to a phony 13-year, $72-million deal that pays just 5% of his total salary over his final two seasons, has a lower annual cap hit and has played more hockey than Phaneuf.

Now, ice time is hardly a perfect measure of Phaneuf’s worth, and I think most would agree that at least five of the seven players ahead of Phaneuf on that list are better defensemen than the Leafs captain.  But what we can extrapolate is that is that defensemen who play as much as Phaneuf does tend to get paid as much as Phaneuf does.  They also tend to have both a leadership role and a ‘play in all situations’ role with their club, much like Phaneuf does.  So while I’d be hesitant to say that Phaneuf is the league’s 8th best defenseman, he’s certainly in the top 20.

But one of the greatest difficulties in projecting Phaneuf’s future cap hit is understanding the vast shift in his playing style since coming to Toronto.  As alluded to above, he has been tasked with defensive zone starts and top lines every shift he’s skated in Toronto.  In his early days, Phaneuf saw over 5 minutes a night on the power play, and was given sheltered minutes at even strength.  This season, Phaneuf finds himself in an elite pair of defenders (the other being Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson) who average at least 3:30 in ice time on both the penalty kill and power play per game while facing the league’s best forwards.

At this point, I’d like to remind Leafs fans of Phaneuf’s idol and potential career model, Scott Stevens.  While known for punishing hits and staunch defensive play for the New Jersey Devils, it’s sometimes hard to remember that he was once a pure scorer.  While never among the ranks of Larry Murphy or Paul Coffey offensively, Stevens still tallied 900 points in his career.  His best season was 1993-94 when he finished with 78 points.  Then came the first of Gary Bettman’s lockouts and a new game format that encouraged stifling defensive play.  In 10 more seasons, Stevens would only crack 30 points once more, yet he became the most notable defensive presence of the “Dead Puck Era.”

Similarly for Phaneuf, the offensive dynamism that made him rich seems to have been replaced by defensive prowess.  It’s not that Phaneuf has lost that offensive side to his game, it’s that his role and usage limit his overall number of offensive chances for in favour of limiting offensive chances against.  Phaneuf could never score 40 points again, but he’s significantly more reliable, responsible and positionally sound than he was in his halcyon days as a scorer.  As both James Mirtle and I said on Monday, Phaneuf is without a doubt the most irreplaceable player in the line up.

Many have argued that Phaneuf’s current cap number looks out of place citing his capgeek comparables, and have been using Jay Bouwmeester when forecasting Phaneuf’s next deal.  The St. Louis Blues defender and former linemate of Phaneuf’s is in the last year of a deal that pays him $6.68-million annually.  He also recently signed a five-year extension with the Blues that will pay him a mere $5.4-million.  And for seemingly little reason, that’s what Phaneuf should get.  Or so the thinking goes.

But there’s several factors that make me believe there’s no chance that Phaneuf can be re-signed for JayBo’s modest number.  Firstly, there’s little similarity in their game, beyond the fact that both log a tonne of minutes.  Over the past four seasons, Bouwmeester has 30 fewer points than Phaneuf; 22 fewer goals.  While a top defenseman in his own right, Bouwmeester has to fight for third billing behind standouts Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.  It’s hard to ask for a raise when there are two other guys at your work who do your job better than you.  Phaneuf does not have to suffer that workplace competition, and might never in a Leaf uniform.  Also, George W. Bush was still president at the start of the last season where Bouwmeester recorded 40 points.  Finally, Phaneuf is also a year younger than Bouwmeester, still closer to his prime and still able to crack 40 points.

So what does it all mean?  What is Phaneuf worth? Most would agree that he’s not worthy of Ryan Suter’s $7.4-million paycheque, despite Phaneuf having 59 more points over 600-game careers.  He’s also worth more than Jay Bouwmeester’s future cap hit of $5.4-million.

If I had to stake a guess, I’d actually say that Phaneuf will see a slight raise ahead of next season.  He’s still only 28, and has been healthy most of his career.  He’s proven capable of playing 25-minutes a night and more likely than not to score 40 points a season.  There’s a dearth of options internally or externally that the Leafs could acquire to immediately replace and improve upon what Phaneuf does.

The only way I could see him re-signing at his current price tag or for less money is if the Leafs are willing to offer Phaneuf an eight-year deal.  But if I had to give a more accurate range, I’d say that the Leafs and Phaneuf will probably end up coming to terms on a deal in the 7-8 year, $47-56-million deal.  That would put his annual cap hit at a reasonable, $6.7 to $7-million cap hit on a deal that would expire when Phaneuf was 36 or 37 years of age.  Should the Leafs want shorter term, expect the AAV to go up accordingly.

While it might sound unreasonable, nothing about NHL player’s paydays are ever reasonable.  And ask yourself, what would you rather have? Phaneuf at 6.9 million, or to spend the next few seasons trying to replace him?

Highest Scoring NHL Defenseman

For combined seasons, from 2005-06 to 2013-14, playing defenseman, sorted by descending goals scored.
1Shea Weber20062014NHL54011118529610939433565114577.612485
2Dion Phaneuf20062014NHL61310823934712311815466117356.215327
3Zdeno Chara20062014NHL606104245349122133783386317116.115816
4Dan Boyle20062014NHL56096280376126-13430514413926.914214
5Lubomir Visnovsky20062014NHL5469426035411926253553910259.212524
6Mike Green20062014NHL4459419028410352330454810678.810082
7Nicklas Lidstrom20062012NHL54891325416135173238415013526.714088
8Joe Corvo20062014NHL568771912689324183373812726.111852
9Dennis Wideman20062014NHL5927420628095-45389284412256.013905
10Marc-Andre Bergeron20062013NHL4317213520775-2717931418418.67667
11Brent Burns20072013NHL4567014821877433538329697.29803
12Sergei Gonchar20062014NHL52069282351112-22418224611036.312702
13John-Michael Liles20062013NHL5426721227992-38214323510036.710761
14Jay Bouwmeester20062014NHL6316621327993-7427452111855.616487
15Mark Streit20062014NHL5026522729296-5825027369037.210418
16Chris Pronger20062012NHL445632352989658492243910096.211652
17Christian Ehrhoff20062014NHL586622102728975407342812075.112741
18Sami Salo20062014NHL47061141202706819421408687.010140
19Duncan Keith20062014NHL62059258317101101419411312574.715731
20Ed Jovanovski20062013NHL4485815321172-6542525339106.49593
21Brent Seabrook20062014NHL612571962538388471371910555.413810
22Brian Campbell20062014NHL601572993561104614130278736.513983
23Kimmo Timonen20062014NHL612562843401075539821309985.613826
24Niklas Kronwall20062014NHL50554194248804533430247846.911234
25Marek Zidlicky20062014NHL5485322828189-4447216378536.211739
26Alexander Edler20072014NHL44253158211712524726269305.79809
27Jordan Leopold20062014NHL4955210515756-2423238136647.810337
28Pavel Kubina20062012NHL5155016521571-1555624268845.711102
29Ryan Whitney20062014NHL4785020925982-2838125247057.111070
30Andrej Meszaros20062014NHL53949153202673239929199625.111195
31Joni Pitkanen20062013NHL4644920625582-2344035139045.411462
32Brian Rafalski20062011NHL45649259308948217222268305.910924
33Kevin Bieksa20062014NHL47548161209684070830189285.210721
34Michal Rozsival20062014NHL55146163209687145222226656.912144
35Tomas Kaberle20062013NHL54146293339103-4015025219255.012658
36Francois Beauchemin20062014NHL5514513618160-1032030159564.713538
37Ian White20062013NHL5034513417960462543879674.710493
38Fedor Tyutin20062014NHL5894415920366-3238626169394.713121
39Jaroslav Spacek20062012NHL46043150193636434123206596.59692
40Trevor Daley20062014NHL6064212116355104333577995.312656
41Ryan Suter20062014NHL60342235277854542627149454.413948
42Filip Kuba20062013NHL5264217721970-3624225156936.111772
43Dan Hamhuis20062014NHL6104018222270814142899264.313704
44Brad Stuart20062014NHL5774013217257-1731125148874.512704
45Brett Clark20062013NHL5314013517557-3023323177015.710923
46Chris Phillips20062014NHL6183911615552354322976995.613272
47Stephane Robidas20062014NHL60239158197631056319199504.113095
48Derek Morris20062014NHL5543913317256-4446526118334.711555
49Matt Carle20062014NHL53138194232725717718207395.111223
50Roman Hamrlik20062013NHL5223815919763524232897804.911544
51Adrian Aucoin20062013NHL5063811615452-433725137635.010744
52Keith Ballard20062014NHL551361301665405562576155.910987
53Eric Brewer20062014NHL496369613245-694453156645.411392
54Tom Gilbert20072014NHL4593614217857-4413423125446.610338
55Ron Hainsey20062014NHL5713515719261-3826715208544.112133
56Chris Campoli20062012NHL4403511114649-422002585216.78015
57Rostislav Klesla20062014NHL43934751093834242776305.49144
58Zbynek Michalek20062014NHL5753311715049-526222117924.212867
59Braydon Coburn20062014NHL50433109142482843523106984.710664
60Paul Martin20062014NHL52632185217667416819136514.912626
61Dan Girardi20072014NHL4993112315450220319117334.211328
62Dennis Seidenberg20062014NHL5283014817856202242379733.111317
63Steve Montador20062012NHL484309312341436172646654.57398
64Marc-Edouard Vlasic20072014NHL5312712214947782081976254.311758
65Johnny Oduya20072014NHL5242710212942462362335305.110582
66Andrew Ference20062014NHL5232311513844184351946633.510390
67Steve Staios20062012NHL464238010334-545461935134.59111
68Bryan Allen20062014NHL516229111336166002015214.210271
69Francis Bouillon20062014NHL50922749632-133401754664.79408
70Henrik Tallinder20062014NHL503229011236253022004454.910335
71Willie Mitchell20062014NHL490228110333914192104834.610906
72Milan Jurcina20062012NHL43022598128-282801565404.17315
73Scott Hannan20062014NHL6042010112138-313131725273.813217
74Jan Hejda20072014NHL47920871073422391914604.310078
75Barret Jackman20062014NHL5551911012940176661435813.311827
76Mark Stuart20062014NHL44019426121324671803355.77045
77Steve Eminger20062013NHL43019749330-282901632856.77725
78Robyn Regehr20062014NHL5931810212037425191075723.112538
79Toni Lydman20062013NHL5581713214944614111435473.111591
80Hal Gill20062013NHL55617809731-14961704333.910231
81Tim Gleason20062014NHL5541510512036-45621225672.610957
82Anton Volchenkov20062014NHL530158710232673621505602.710198
83Nick Schultz20062014NHL617149110532-303091224333.212212
84Josh Gorges20062014NHL50714748828332411133494.010068
85Mike Komisarek20062014NHL45514587223-146031203933.68123
86Karlis Skrastins20062011NHL44314556922-142191203064.68868
87Shane O'Brien20072014NHL49413768927178631124133.18469
88Matt Greene20062014NHL47913536621-155431303663.68243
89Cory Sarich20062014NHL55412799128206241204442.79750
90Greg Zanon20062013NHL49312506220-92301203333.69789
91Brooks Orpik20062014NHL5581110311433785651013862.811022
92Ladislav Smid20072014NHL47111546520-423911102963.78951
93Bryce Salvador20062014NHL45911556620-53671102953.79096
94Sean O'Donnell20062012NHL5311079892742574902454.19368
95Shaone Morrisonn20062011NHL43610576721244371002753.68326
96Colin White20062012NHL47496675224347813322.79347
97Andrew Alberts20062014NHL45284755170492702483.27213
98Mike Weaver20062014NHL4857687522-11169612772.58624
99Douglas Murray20062014NHL467755621831374614281.68174
100Rob Scuderi20062014NHL583678842420165603281.811522