When Brian Burke was fired as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it signalled that the team he built has failed to accomplish their objectives in their expected timeline. The experiment is over, despite Dave Nonis taking over the GM duties, Burke's assistant who helped build this decidedly mediocre team. Both Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel have one year remaining on their contracts, and were principal pieces acquired by the now unemployed Burkie. There is no guarantee that either player will return to Toronto when their contracts expire, though Phaneuf being team captain does increase the probability he'll return. The question is, should the team want either player for the long term? They have been the cornerstones of this team for the last two seasons, both years the Leafs missed the playoffs.
Phaneuf has started the 2013 season with 1
point and a -6 through 10 games as he leads the team in ice time (he ranks 350th on my week 2 player rankings). He is the team's captain, he logs 27 minutes per game, and he gets paid $6.5M per season. This ranks him among the top defensemen in the league, an elite salary for a player who might not even be very effective. He was previously voted by his peers as the most overrated player in the NHL. He's certainly no Chris Pronger or Scott Neidermayer, defensemen acquired by Burke in Anaheim en route to a Stanley Cup. Sure, some people might say it is ridiculous to even compare Phaneuf to Pronger, and certainly from a value standpoint, they are not in the same class. However, both were acquired early in the tenure of a Brian Burke team, and Dion is certainly paid like an elite player, even if he's only slightly above average.
The difference between Phaneuf and Pronger helps to illustrate the difference between Burke's Anaheim and Toronto experiences, one producing a Stanley Cup, the other an untimely dismissal. One can't help
but forget that Calgary was all too happy to unload him back in 2009, which did raise a few eyebrows. Why would any team want to unload one of the most promising young blueliners in the game? He is a very physical player who has seen a steady decline in offensive production. His worst year in Calgary was better than his best year in Toronto. Perhaps this is not a building block that you want to construct your team around, certainly if your goal is to win a championship. He could be a valuable contributor to a champion one day, but not as the top defenseman logging close to 30 minutes of ice time every game for $6.5M. That's not a recipe for success.
The same can probably be said for Phil Kessel, who's name is getting plenty of frequent flyer miles on the NHL rumour mill. Kessel is arguably the least defensively responsible player in the league, and is entirely one dimensional. He shoots and scores. That's about it, and this year he's been struggling early with no goals in the first 10 games. His name surfaces in trade rumours far more frequently than captain Dion, but both should be equally considered. There has to be a
decent trade market for both of these players. Their contracts expire soon, and
they have attractive skill sets. Do the Toronto Maple Leafs believe that they can contend for a championship next season? Considering that the team is now owned by two media companies with 24 hour sports networks, the smart money says ownership will want to win, whether it is a likely scenario is not. Bell and Rogers could veto a true rebuild.
Should the Leafs fall short of a playoff spot this season and/or next season, and lose both Phaneuf and Kessel to free agency, that will be considered a major loss for the future of the franchise. Getting something in return for these assets while their value is still relatively high just makes sense. Will either player accept less money to stay in this media-circus of Toronto? They currently make a combined $12M per season. That's a lot of coin for two guys who have played a combined 428 (and counting) consecutive games without a playoff appearance. It reamins to be seen if a deal gets done, but at the very least Dave Nonis has to be entertaining trade offers, perhaps even leak an "e5" rumour to Eklund to help build demand.