By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 18) – Undoubtedly, some fans of the Maple Leafs are bound to cringe at this suggestion, but here goes: If the hockey club is to make the playoffs over a full, 82-game schedule for the first time in a decade, its defense corps will have to show the way.
Right now, that means Dion Phaneuf and Co. It also apparently means indigestion for a large segment of Leaf followers.
Here’s a tip: Don’t sweat it. The club is in good shape.
From what I’m told, Leafs have discussed – with several teams – a trade involving Phaneuf. One year and $5.5 million remains on the Leaf captain’s contract, which carries a $6.5 million cap hit next season. Given today’s market, Phaneuf earned that money with his performance in the lockout-shortened schedule. Though many fans of the Blue and White choose to obsess over Phaneuf’s mistakes – and he does err too much to be considered an elite defenseman – he is certainly a front-line player at his position.
With nine goals and 28 points in 48 games, Dion finished 10th in scoring among NHL blue-liners – ahead of such notables as Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Streit, Duncan Keith, Sergei Gonchar, Brent Seabrook and Zdeno Chara. That’s fairly impressive. Phaneuf averaged 25 minutes and 10 seconds of ice time and Leafs would certainly have to know they can replace such a work-load before making any worthwhile trade. But, Dion’s contract is movable, particularly if the club has limited design on locking him up beyond next season. And, thinking long-term should bring a smile to David Nonis.
If I were to place a bet on where Leafs will be two years from now, it would include Jonathan Bernier as a stand-out No. 1 goalie; Cody Franson as the big-minute horse on the back end; Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly as the smoothest-skating pair of young defensemen in the NHL. My vision doesn’t yet encompass Matt Finn, Stuart Percy, Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer or Peter Granberg – all of whom may become NHL caliber blue-liners. With a diminishing cap, money will have to be conserved and properly allocated to maintain such a cadre. That’s where trading Phaneuf is likely feasible.
DION PHANEUF: VALUABLE TO LEAFS ON DEFENSE AND AS TRADE OPTION.
As mentioned, a deal – right now – would have to make sense economically and strategically. My old pal, Bill Watters, doesn’t think Dion is worth a heck of a lot, and maybe he’s right. But, I’ll disagree with Willie on this one, mainly because Phaneuf has that lone year remaining on his current pact. It provides the Leafs maneuverability; Nonis can discuss trading his captain without any particular burden. If nothing materializes, Dion comes back in September and eats up his 25 minutes once again.
The benefit, however, of making a practical swap before next season is two-fold: Procuring some talent and avoiding how injury could impact a one-shot attempt at the trade deadline. Obviously, the Maple Leafs would rather not lose Phaneuf with no return as a UFA next summer.
Is Dion in the long-term plan of the Leafs? Or, is he not?
Given that Phaneuf’s name has come up in trade discussion – and that the hockey club has some enviable youth on the way – I’d lean heavily toward the latter. It is clearly a situation that bears watching.
IT’S BEEN HOT… AND PRETTY
Toronto has been locked in a sweltering wave of humidity this week – the heat index rising into the mid-40’s Celsius. I’ve spent time on the balcony of my apartment watching the convection build-up, and the flight path of jetliners landing at Pearson Airport. Given the setting sun and puffy, cumulus clouds, it has been rather pretty out there.
I snapped these images with my trusty Nikon:
FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON (ABOVE).
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