I imagine most people wouldn’t make this connection, but there’s something strangely fitting about the Toronto Maple Leafs signing Dion Phaneuf to a massive (but probably appropriate) seven-year, $49-million contract extension just days after the Dallas Cowboys were booted from the NFL playoff picture in a massively disappointing (but oddly appropriate) way.
If you paint in really broad brushstrokes, the two teams share parallel paths.
For better or worse, it’s probably fair to call the Cowboys “America’s team.” On the NHL scale, it’s difficult to deny that the Maple Leafs carry that mantle for Canada, even considering the Montreal Canadiens’ undeniable grandeur. (One could argue against both labels to varying success, I’d wager.)
The Cowboys are arguably the most recognizable team in the sport, draw criticism for pricing normal fans out (thus ruining their atmosphere) and employ a scapegoating hydra in Tony Romo and Jerry Jones.
Applying the same rather circuitous logic to the NHL, the Maple Leafs probably match the Cowboys as well as any hockey franchise.
The Buds are the most valuable team in the league, removing any “arguably” and “one of the” caveats that the Cowboys carry in comparison to other NFL franchises. That value prompts the same concern that the Leafs play in an excessively sterile environment for such a violent sport.
HIGH-PROFILE MISERY LOVES COMPANY
Most unfortunately and importantly, the Leafs and Cowboys distinguish themselves by absolutely stomping on the souls of their fans with brutal losses. After long playoff-free lulls following the departure of overly criticized faces of the franchise (Troy Aikman for Dallas, Mats Sundin for Toronto), the two teams haven’t just lost; they’ve lost spectacularly.
The Leafs probably own the single most soul-crushing of those defeats by way of that infamous Boston Bruins Game 7 comeback, yet Cowboys fans may carry more baggage by sheer repetition. When the season’s been on the line, Romo and now Kyle Orton have thrown backbreaking interceptions at the worst possible times with almost dizzying frequency.
I can’t help but assume that Leafs and Cowboys fans would find a lot in common, at least when it comes to exchanging stories of significant sadness.
Extending this overarching parallel, the Cowboys are sticking with their duo (Jones probably won’t leave until health intervenes and Romo re-signed before this season) while the Leafs combo of blame (Phil Kessel and Phaneuf)* is here to stay, too.
Modifying the bigger picture “will he be worth it?” prompt for fantasy purposes, allow me to ponder what this contract extension might mean for Phaneuf, the Leafs and fantasy owners.
WRAPPING UP THE ROMO COMPARISON
Really, Phaneuf and Kessel probably combine qualities to form a decent Romo parallel.
Both Phaneuf and Kessel bare the distinction of coming into the NHL with a sizeable amount of hype, which differs from Romo, an undrafted curiosity who had to fight some odds to grab his prominent role.
Still, Phaneuf-Kessel combine to be a “franchise savior” of sorts, much like Romo. In a lot of cases, that means coaxing fans and pundits into the amusingly wrong-minded practice of blaming the best guy(s) on the team.
Yes, there are times when a franchise’s star player falls flat. And no doubt, those are the guys who carry the biggest responsibilities and the largest paychecks.
Despite whatever nitpicky deficiencies Phaneuf, Kessel and Romo might legitimately possess, it’s foolish to claim that they are their teams’ true problems, though. Instead, they’re being asked to hold up leaky foundations erected by team builders who often value style over substance.
The problem for the Cowboys isn’t late “choking” by Romo (and now Orton) while the Leafs’ woes shouldn’t be pinned to Phaneuf and Kessel. But those storylines are the easy, pot-stirring ones to point to, so people lean on them nonetheless.
SOAP OPERA SETTINGS
Heck, the parallels even stretch into the world of celebrity dating, at least in the case of Phaneuf and Romo. While Phaneuf endured tabloid-like drama thanks to Sean Avery’s comments about Elisha Cuthbert, Cowboys pundits laughably blamed a playoff meltdown on Romo’s trip to Cabo with Jessica Simpson.
I mean, Romo even had a romantic involvement with someone who’s now married to a hockey player, as he dated Carrie Underwood before she became Mrs. Mike Fisher.** The parallels are resounding … if you’re weird like me, at least.
PHANEUF’S FANTASY VALUE
Again, my takeaway when people criticize Romo/Phaneuf/Kessel is that those players are being unfairly slammed for merely not being the absolute best at their positions. Angry fans and lazy columnists aren’t satisfied with guys being really good.
According to Yahoo’s listings, Phaneuf has been the 14th-most valuable defenseman fantasy-wise this season, which would probably climb a bit if he didn’t deal with that brief suspension.
His 15 points in 39 games probably aren’t much to get thrilled about, as he's been a solid-but-unspectacular offensive contributor in Toronto after a brief run as a sheltered, high-scoring blueliner in Calgary (before his fortune turned a bit).
Instead, Phaneuf distinguishes himself in the "grit" categories more than anything else.
The punishing blueliner ranks ninth among defensemen with 102 hits in 39 games; that's about 2.62 per contest. He actually has more blocked shots than Dan Girardi this season, piling up 76 versus the Rangers BS machines’ 68 despite Phaneuf appearing in two fewer games. Phaneuf is a nice PIM producer, too. He has 851 in 639 career games. He's racked up 100+ twice and 90+ three more times and could very well fall in that range with 50 in 39 games this season.
My assumption was that the Leafs defenseman might have turned up the intensity a bit in a contract year, but that doesn't appear to be the case. (Really, I shouldn't be surprised being that his last name was used as a verb to describe a particularly brutal hit.) He carries that aforementioned mean streak in nice PIM totals and was a plentiful checker last season, coming in at sixth among defensemen in hits with 131 in 48. In other words, I don't see much of a reason to see a decline in hits, PIM or blocked shots.
THE PRICE TAG
Phaneuf will only jump from being one of the top 10 highest-paid defensemen in the NHL to one of the top five (give or take) with this signing, so it’s not a huge change. For many, it’s the term that gives the most pause.
Still, when you consider his role, it all seems pretty appropriate.
The 28-year-old has logged 24:27 time on ice per game, good for 24th in the league (right behind Ryan McDonagh, Jonas Brodin and Jay Bouwmeester, right ahead of Duncan Keith, Justin Faulk and Christian Ehrhoff). His versatility is notable, as he averages almost as much shorthanded time per game (3:18) as power-play minutes (3:34). Simply put, the Leafs ask him to be a do-everything defenseman and he usually succeeds nicely in that role.
Is he worth that much money, especially as he gets older? The age issue is more of a nature-of-the-beast thing; you could make the same complaint about a number of re-signings. Overall, I’d say “close enough.”
A MATTER OF OPTIONS
The key is that, like Romo and Kessel, Phaneuf held plenty of leverage. Who else on the Leafs roster is even within a shouting distance of being able to accomplish what Phaneuf (and Kessel) can? That question probably drove much of the discussion during contract talks.
As much as some Leafs fans want to lay everything at the feet of Kessel and Phaneuf, smart observers should be glad that Toronto kept them in the fold. That's especially true considering the increasingly eccentric decision-making from Randy Carlyle and/or Dave Nonis; with rumblings that the team is shopping affordable, productive forward Nazem Kadri (not even a full season removed from cutting ties with a quality player in Mikhail Grabovski in order to sign a questionable asset in David Clarkson), it’s difficult to shake the impression that the Leafs front office’s “My way or the highway” methods might leave them crashing off course.
I don’t know if Kessel is an $8 million forward or if Phaneuf is a $7 million defenseman, but I’d argue they’re close enough. They’d likely bring in at least that much on the free agent market.
Most importantly, they’re the best the Leafs got, whether fans and management like it or not. Like Cowboys fans, the hope (or maybe foolish dream) for Leafs devotees is that management will eventually surround these top few players with quality supporting cast members.
Either way, more Phaneuf, Kessel and Romo means more drama for fans without a horse in the race.
It remains to be seen if “drama” will ever mean anything other than “crushing, jarring defeat,” though.
* - Don’t get me wrong, the Leafs feature other moving targets of blame. More than a few people wonder what in the world Randy Carlyle is doing and criticize Dave Nonis’ vision. Savvy Cowboys fans have blamed everything from bad defense to weak offensive line play instead of Romo, although that all extends back to the GM (aka Jerry Jones) ...
** - Mark it down: this might be the first time Underwood is called “Mrs. Mike Fisher” instead of Mike Fisher being called “Mr. Carrie Underwood.”