The three stages of defending the Dion Phaneuf deal

So, Ottawa managed to get out from under one of its two supposedly unmovable contracts, dealing Dion Phaneuf and Jersey Shore-looking Nate Thompson to Los Angeles for the haunted shade of Marian Gaborik and fourth-liner Nick “Not Quentin” Shore. Ottawa keeps 25% of Phaneuf’s salary, which immediately becomes Ottawa’s third-highest paid defenseman.

Who won the trade? Some will say “whoever got the best player,” which is clearly LA in that they received “a” player. Others will say, “Ottawa sheds millions without giving up any picks or prospects” and that’s fine too. I don’t really care. They’re both true. The only winner in these “winner and loser” debates is the paywall.

What I’m most interested in is looking back at the Dion Phaneuf contract itself and how our collective thinking about it has evolved. Or not evolved.

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Toronto

Back in 2013, when Toronto signed Phaneuf to his 7-year deal worth almost $50 million (a “monster” deal, if you will), I remember listening to James Mirtle guesting on a Pension Plan Puppets podcast. (Give me a break. I was on a bus in the winter. It was stuck on ice. I wasn’t going anywhere.) What Mirtle said then seems true today or at least prevails as consensus opinion: that defensemen who can play more than 20 minutes a night are extremely difficult to come by.  Was the Phaneuf deal bad? Sure, Mirtle conceded. But it didn’t matter. Paying him on this bad deal was not as bad as not having him on the roster at all, as you can only replace somebody who can play more than 20 minutes a night with somebody else who can play more than 20 minutes a night.

Here was a player who’d served in leadership since a young age and whose YouTube reel includes the kind of open-ice hits that makes you want to buy light beer and care about which trucks won the most J.D. Power and Associates awards. The presumption was, at that time, that millions in wasted money are just the price you pay to have what amounts to a rare specimen. If a player like Phaneuf ever became available on the free agent market or for trade, you’d have to pay the exact same bad contract – or worse – on top of possibly giving up assets. A bird in hand is better than two bastards in a basket, as they say.

Toronto went on to win four Stanley Cups.

Ottawa

I’ve always found the myth perpetuated by the Toronto contract a little bit hard to swallow. Let’s say you’ve got somebody on your roster who plays, on average, between 10 and 16 minutes a night. Most teams have a few of these guys. Let’s take Freddy Claesson, who makes $650,000 a year to Phaneuf’s $7,000,000. Is the four minutes of ice time that Phaneuf plays worth all of that extra coin? Sure, Phaneuf players tougher minutes and in tougher situations. Plus, there are all of the intangibles he provides, which, unlike some, I attribute at least some value to. But both players’ possession numbers are, in the scheme of things, equally underwhelming. What is it about the difference between 16 minutes and 20 minutes that separates the acceptable from the elite, and what is it about Phaneuf that gives him that edge? Would it really crater the team’s chances to give 20 minutes to a series of unknowns making nothing and see who sticks? Is it really worth $6,350,000 to not have to find out?

Bryan Murray said yes, it is, and not only said he’d take on Phaneuf’s bad contract – without Toronto having to retain any salary – but threw in a 2nd-round pick to boot. (Ask any Sens fan: every 2nd-round pick works out.) Toronto did take back a series of junk contracts that weren’t providing Ottawa any value, but the underlying assumption remained intact: players like Dion Phaneuf are rarely available, so you do what you have to to get them on your roster. Even as Toronto was doing whatever it had to it get him off their roster.

The deal wasn’t a disaster for Ottawa, especially if you attribute some of last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals to Phaneuf’s play (debatable) and the development of some rookies to his stabilizing presence in the locker room (the definition of debatable). There’s also a world in which the deal worked out even better for Ottawa. In that other, better world, Phaneuf’s guidance enables Cody Ceci to become the bedrock top-four defender at age 23 that Ottawa hoped he would be, as opposed to what he is now, which is sub-Tom Preissing.

In the end, Phaneuf ended up on some league-wide “worst contract” lists, coming in ahead of even Bobby Ryan, a scoring winger with seven goals who’s making more money and is signed one year longer.

Sure, the contract was bad…but how else do you get him on your roster???

Los Angeles

Which brings us to the latest victim of the “you can’t just find these guys anywhere” mentality. Ottawa, just as Toronto did before them, took on millions in bad contracts, from which they will derive close to zero value, just to get out from under Phaneuf’s contract, which at least was providing some value. That’s how little value he’s providing, as the type of guy you can’t just find anywhere. Ottawa prefers to pay money for nothing than to pay more money for what he provides.

Will he provide value to Los Angeles? He can’t help but provide some, in the sense that he is technically present and alive on their blue line. Is that value really so much greater than literally any replacement-level defencemen Los Angeles has in their system? Than *squints* $650,000 Kevin Gravel?

Conclusion

There’s some magical quality assigned players who “can play more than 20 minutes a night.” I’ve certainly invoked it on our podcasts and elsewhere. And I do believe that if the NHL regular season is more a marathon than a sprint (it feels that way to me, and all I’m doing is drinking beer on the couch) then having someone who can be not terrible for a third of the game, game-in and game-out is truly something to look for. In the sense that you should try to draft those guys, keep them in-house, and squeeze value out of their RFA years. Once you pay them like the supposedly rare commodity that they are, the situation takes on the air of self-legitimizing logic. Of course Phaneuf plays more than 20 minutes a night, because you’re paying him like it.

I’m not sold that the tens of millions you have to pay in bad contracts is really preferable to a “defense by committee” approach or by giving ice time to young and cheap players and seeing how they do. Consider this: between Toronto and Ottawa, teams have taken on the combined contracts of Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Jared Cowen, Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore – $29.1 million in dead salary, or roughly 60% of the value of Phaneuf’s contract – just to get out from under it.

This will obviously be a sticking point as Ottawa approaches the Karlsson contract. 2014’s $7 million per / $50 million contract is today’s $12 million per / $100 million contract. You can make more of an argument that you can’t find a Karlsson anywhere else – he’s a generational talent, unlike Phaneuf – but as the journey of Phaneuf’s contract shows us, these gifts can quickly become curses and you feel curses in years.

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