When it was announced this morning that the Toronto Maple Leafs settled on a 1-year, $2 million deal with their training camp holdout defenseman, Cody Franson, the spidey-senses of 29 NHL General Managers simultaneously blared like car alarms.
Why? The Toronto Maple Leafs are no longer cap compliant.
Of course, there are plenty of creative ways to bring an NHL roster under cap.
The Leafs could go with a shortened roster to open the season. But let’s face it, no one outside of Toronto wants to daydream about slippery demotions to the AHL. At this moment, you, me, and everyone else (including the aforementioned 29 GMs) are thinking the same thing: trade.
Confirming my suspicion, Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com tweeted this morning,
“Said an NHL team exec from another team: they’ll be getting lots of calls for sure now because everyone knows their cap situation.'”
Of course, if the Leafs have their way, they’ll simply trade John-Michael Liles, and his $3.875 million contract, and be done with it. But you, me, and most importantly those 29 General Managers, aren’t daydreaming about Liles either. Those General Managers (and let’s not forget you and me) are hoping the Leafs will be forced to jump the gun on a looming decision they’ll have to make sooner or later this year: what to do with pending free agents Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel.
For those of you not tuned in to the goings-on in the hockey capital of the world, allow me to bring you up to speed. Kessel is the Leaf’s perennial leading scorer. Phaneuf is the Leaf’s captain. And yet both are the constant target of scrutiny by media and fans alike (and remember, we’re talking about Toronto, where hockey is less a pass-time than a way of life). Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, Kessel and Phaneuf are either two of the most overvalued, or underappreciated, players in the league.
Let’s just say they’re polarizing figures.
And both of them are in contract years. That means the Toronto Maple Leafs have between now and the trade deadline to figure out whether or not Kessel and Phaneuf figure into their long-term plans. But with this morning’s signing of Franson, and the team suddenly over the cap, the Leafs might decide to kill two birds with one stone, i.e., they might decide to get under the cap and solve their pending UFA issue in one stroke. Or at least, that’s what’s on the minds of 29 General Managers, even if it might not be on the mind of the only General Manager that counts: Leaf’s GM Dave Nonis.
But what’s the fun in being a devoted hockey fan if we can’t speculate? Why pay attention to the off-season at all if we can’t kill some time playing armchair GM? What’s the fun in writing hockey articles if you can’t post your cockamamie ideas as if you have a clue what you’re talking about?
So speculate we will.
I should say right away that the Lightning undoubtedly have no interest whatsoever in Phil Kessel. It’s not that Kessel isn’t a good player – personally, I think Kessel gets the short end of too many sticks in Toronto, where if they can’t compare you to Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark, you have no business being a Leaf (because Gilmour and Clark won all those championships…) .
To be fair to the Kessel-haters out there, he’s a one-dimensional player. He’s on the soft side and you can never be sure if he’s in shape. His attitude is constantly in question. But that one-dimension he has? It’s pretty darn good. Kessel has scored a point-per-game in each of the last two seasons, has had 30 goals or the equivalent in each of the last five seasons, and has been the Maple Leaf’s leading scorer every year since his arrival. These guys don’t grow on trees.
So you ask: If Phil Kessel’s such a great player, why wouldn’t the Lightning be interested? Because, well, of the many problems the Lightning have, top-line production isn’t one of them. And besides, the Lightning already have a speedy goal-scoring dynamo. He’s one of the few goal-scoring dynamos that’s actually better than Phil Kessel. His name is Steven Stamkos.
Not to mention, about the last thing the Lightning need is another forward with a reputation for being a bit lackadaisical in his defensive end.
So as armchair GMs, we pass.
Dion Phaneuf, however, makes our ears perk up.
Leaf fans are hard on Phaneuf, but that’s mostly because they thought they were getting the beast that terrorized the Saddledome for 4.5 seasons as a Calgary Flame. That wasn’t really the player that showed up.
Most visibly, Phaneuf has failed to really come close to being the offensive juggernaut he was in his early years in the league.
With the Flames, Phaneuf never posted a point total lower than 47 points. He’s yet to hit that mark with the Leafs, coming closest in 2011/2012 when he put up 44.
Yet the bulk of criticism for Phaneuf has nothing to do with offense, but is rather for his defensive zone faults, most notably a bloated total of giveaways. He’s making #1 defenseman money but all the evidence seems to show he’s at best a #2, and perhaps optimally, on a championship calibre team, a #3.
So why would the Lightning be interested in him?
Well, quite frankly, he’s better than anything the Lightning have now in their defensive core. And more than that, Phaneuf brings elements to a team’s blueline that the Lightning sorely need: He can move the puck, he’s a threat to score, and most importantly, he’s an A-grade power play quarterback. (B+ at worst.)
Oh, and he can body check your lungs into your nasal cavity.
As for his defensive liabilities? Well, believe it or not, the Lightning actually have a number of compelling pairing options, i.e. stay-at-home defensemen, that could strike up a nice yin to Phaneuf’s yang.
For instance: Imagine a pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Radko Gudas. Gudas is the definition of a steady defenseman, which would give Phaneuf some slack to play with. And yeah, they’d give players like, well, Phil Kessel, nightmares.
Or how about Phaneuf and Sami Salo? Salo has exceptional positional instincts and could serve not only as a counter-balance to Phaneuf’s sometimes sloppy D-zone play, but also, possibly, as a bit of a mentor.
The other thing to remember is, just as there are different shades of gray, there are also different shades of defensive problems. So if you’re thinking Phaneuf would only add to Tampa Bay’s defensive woes, let me temper your worries a bit.
First, as I’ve said countless times in previous articles, the bulk of Tampa Bay’s defensive issues have less to do with their defensemen than their forwards. Second, the problems that do lie with the defensemen are mostly issues of puck movement; the Lightning have major issues moving the puck from their zone to the neutral zone. Phaneuf, for all his faults, can move the puck.
So there you have a number of reasons why the Bolts should be at least sniffing around Dave Nonis’s phone lines.
What are the cons?
Well, the cons of bringing Phaneuf to Tampa Bay are toned down versions of the cons he has in Toronto. Phaneuf is making top-defenseman dollars but isn’t completely suited to top-defenseman minutes. In Tampa Bay, Phaneuf would probably assume top-defenseman duties (he’s making, this year, one million dollars more than Matt Carle), and he’d probably deserve them. But if the Lightning’s plans come to fruition, he would soon be second fiddle to Victor Hedman. Hedman, slowly but surely, is emerging as a bonafide #1 D-man.
…Not to mention defensive zone turnovers can be disastrous regardless of your blueline partner.
But on the issue of salary, allow me to say this: the cap is going up, and Phaneuf’s salary probably isn’t. At least not much. Phaneuf is making $6.5 million this year. His biggest concern for this coming off-season is not taking a paycut. He simply has not played like a $6.5 million dollar defenseman. Should he stay in Toronto, it’s unlikely the Leafs will want to give him a raise, and at best would sign him for roughly the same money he’s making now. On the open market? Phaneuf could potentially bring in a contract in the $7 million range. But from a team’s perspective, that can be looked at as a bargain. Remember: the cap is going up, and therefore, Phaneufs salary will take up a smaller portion of the total payroll.
Of course, the biggest obstacle when playing armchair GM is figuring out what you can live with giving up, or what you believe your real-world counterpart, i.e. Steve Yzerman in our case, can live with giving up.
And here’s one place where, even as naive armchair GMs, we can see one thing clearly: A Dion Phaneuf trade is not possible without Teddy Purcell going to Toronto.
Purcell comes with a $4.5 million cap hit this season, and there’s no way the Lightning could take on Phaneuf’s contract without shipping out Purcell’s.
I know a lot of Lightning fans love Teddy Purcell, but in reality, it’s the Maple Leafs who would probably nix this deal. Purcell is a winger, and even though he can score, he’s not what Leaf fans call a “Randy Carlyle player.” Purcell, in a lot of ways, is like a playmaking Phil Kessel, without the ability to score a point-per-game.
So, in order to balance out the deal, the Lightning would have to throw in a prospect, or perhaps a would-be NHLer for the sake of their own cap flexibility. And here’s where the possible deal grows legs, because the Lightning have an abundance of prospects and not nearly enough room on their 23-man roster.
The Lightning (or, in this case, I) would probably not be willing to part ways with their cream of the crop prospects. Andrei Vasilevski , Nikita Kucherov, and Brett Connolly aren’t going anywhere. Forget about Jonathan Drouin. But in that second and third tier of prospects, not only are there some valuable players the Lightning could live with losing, but there are also some genuine “Randy Carlyle players.”
If the Leafs are interested in NHL-ready players, Richard Panik and/or J.T. Brown could spark their interest. Ondrej Palat maybe? Or perhaps the Bolts could even be talked out of (for a price) reigning AHL MVP Tyler Johnson.
If the Leafs are interested in longer-term projects, Cedric Paquette is coming off a breakout QMJHL season and made a lot of unexpected rumbles in this year’s training camp. Brian Hart is a few years away, and only projected to be a third liner, but Randy Carlyle would love him.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth we Bolts fans need to swallow: not all of our prospects will eventually play for the Lightning. The Bolts have drafted exceptionally well, regardless of the round, and nearly every pick in the Al Murray-era still has a shot at the NHL. (Al Murray is head of scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning.)
At this point, the Syracuse Crunch might as well be the NHL’s unofficial 31st team, and the Lightning have an entire wave of good-looking prospects that aren’t even AHL-eligible yet. The time is getting near when the Lightning will have to make some tough decisions about which players figure into their long term plans, and which players don’t. Those players, the ones that don’t, then become assets. To be traded.
It probably won’t be for Dion Phaneuf.
Alas, the best part about playing armchair GM is you never have to be the man to pull a trigger on a trade, and therefore you never have to fully commit to a fantasy. Do I think the Lightning should explore a Phaneuf trade? Do I think Phaneuf would be a good fit here? Would I trade Teddy Purcell and a prospect for him? To all of those I say…
…Maybe. The truth is I’m not sure; but that’s why speculation is so much fun – I don’t have to be.