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Can the Leafs afford to re-sign Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf?

The NHL’s salary cap is in a constant state of flux. Hockey Night In Canada’s Elliotte Friedman reported a little over a week ago that the cap could rise to $80-million in four years. In this hfboards thread, Globe and Mail hockey reporter James Mirtle projects the cap to be around $70-million in 2014-15 (Mirtle’s comment is comment #12); a $5.7-million increase from where the cap is for this season.

These are just projections of course, but a rising salary cap is good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have only 10 players signed for the 2014-15 season. If the cap does in fact rise to $70-million, the Leafs will have around $38.7-million to spend on 13 players according to CapGeek. This is important, because there are a few key players who are either still unsigned or will have their contracts end after this season. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are two players who are in the latter category.

Kessel has established himself as one of the best goal-scorers in the NHL, and will be paid a massive deal by some team, whether it’s the Leafs or not. Given the free agent market’s demand for high-end offensive players, Kessel could probably get somewhere in the neighborhood of Corey Perry’s eight-year, $8.625-million contract he signed in March. Kessel doesn’t have a 50-goal, 98-point season to his name like Perry does, but let’s take a look at the two players’ games played, goals and goals-per-game totals from their age 20-25 seasons. Can you guess who is who?

Games Played

Goals

Goals-Per-Game

Player A

450

168

0.37

Player B

434

174

0.4

Player B is Phil Kessel. I know; Kessel came into the league as an 18-year-old so he already had a couple of years of experience under his belt, while Perry was a rookie at age 20. Perry didn’t really “arrive” until he was 22, scoring 29 goals. He followed that up with years of 32, 27 and, of course, that magical 50-goal year. But during that same age span, Kessel has been remarkably consistent as well, enjoying seasons of 30, 32, 37 and 20 (in a 48-game season) goals from age 22-25.

It’s not a perfect comparison, of course, because Perry and Kessel play a very different style. Perry likes to crash and bang and muck it up in front of the net. Kessel likes to use his speed to beat defenders to the outside and snipe from distance. But at the very root of their games, they both score a lot of goals, and Kessel might not get paid as much as Perry, but he’s going to get pretty darn close. The Leafs need to decide whether or not they want to pay the eight years and $8-million per season it’ll cost to get him locked up.

The Phaneuf situation is quite a bit different than Kessel’s. Phaneuf will make $5.5-million this year and carry a cap-hit of $6.5. He’ll be 29 years old when his contract expires, so he’s well past his physical prime. I tried to find some contract comparables to Phaneuf, and the closest I could find was Tobias Enstrom. Enstrom had just finished his age-27 season with the Winnipeg Jets when he signed his five-year, $5.75-million per season contract. Enstrom put up big point totals in the two years before the franchise moved from Atlanta, putting up 50 points in 2009-10 and 51 the year after. Phaneuf hasn’t put up 50 points in a season since 2007-08.

Phaneuf isn’t a slouch offensively, however. He scored at a 0.58 points-per-game clip last year and 0.54 two years ago. He seems to have resurged offensively in his late-20s, reestablishing himself as one of the best offensive defenseman in the league. Where Enstrom and Phaneuf differ, however, is in their physicality and usage. Phaneuf is among his team’s leaders in hits every year, while Enstrom only registers a handful a season. Phanuef has consistently faced the toughest competition on the Leafs every year, while Enstrom usually faces the opposition’s second line.

It’s difficult to come up with a final dollar amount for Phaneuf because the free agent defense market is so wonky. Offensive, puck-moving d-men like Matt Carle and James Wisniewski received identical six-year, $5.5-million per season contracts, both as 27-year-olds. Phaneuf surely brings more value than either of those guys, and a case can be made he deserves more than Enstrom based on his combination of offensive and defensive ability. I’m going to estimate an identical contract to Enstrom of five years and $5.75-million per season for Phaneuf because he doesn’t have the same offensive ability but makes up for it with his ability to face tough competition and play big minutes in all situations.

So to recap, if Kessel gets $8-million and Phaneuf gets $5.75 in new contracts, that would leave the Leafs with $24.95-million in cap space left to sign 11 more players. That would be an average of $2.27-million per player. The Leafs would still need to make decisions on Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, James Reimer, Jake Gardiner, Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger, Jay McClement and Joe Colborne. Out of that group, I think Kadri, Franson, Reimer and Gardiner are must-signs, while the others will depend on the asking price. I think it’s safe to say many of them will not be in a Leafs uniform on opening night of the 2014-15 season.

The Leafs will have a lot of salary cap flexibility at the end of this season, but with flexibility comes a lot of tough decisions. I think it’s possible for both Phaneuf and Kessel to get re-signed if the Leafs want them bad enough, but that’s the million-dollar question. Are the Leafs confident enough in their stable of defense prospects to cut Phaneuf loose and let him sign big money elsewhere? What if they’re forced to deal Franson to make cap space to re-sign Kadri? What if Kessel spurns the Leafs to sign elsewhere? We’ll find out soon enough.

 

Will Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf re-sign with the Leafs?

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Tags: Dion Phaneuf Phil Kessel Toronto Maple Leafs

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