For all the talk about blowing up the Sharks' core group (and thereby actively making the team worse) in the aftermath of their seven-game collapse to Los Angeles, the one area San Jose could stand to substantially improve is the left side of their blueline which is more or less a black hole past Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Acquiring a two-way, left-shot defenseman to pair with Justin Braun would solidify the team's top four and mercifully curtail the aging Brad Stuart's minutes. With Dan Boyle likely to move on via unrestricted free agency, the team also needs a blueliner who can bring an offensive punch on the power play.
Trading for Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf would potentially kill both birds with one stone. Well, at least trading for Phaneuf circa 2008 would. Unfortunately it's Phaneuf circa 2014 who's on the trading block according to Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos. Phaneuf will enter the first year of a 7-year, $49 million contract this July but the Leafs are apparently willing to eat some of that salary. Kypreos mentioned that a Western Conference team is Phaneuf's likely destination and he specifically pinpointed San Jose as a potential landing spot. Buying low on star Canadian players has more or less been Doug Wilson's M.O. throughout his tenure as Sharks GM so acquiring Phaneuf certainly wouldn't be out-of-character. But should he do it?
It's clear that Phaneuf isn't the player he used to be, when he scored 54 goals and 159 points while posting sterling puck possession numbers for the Calgary Flames in his first three NHL seasons. But it's also clear that at least some of Phaneuf's decline can be traced to playing unusually brutal minutes for truly horrendous Leafs teams. James Mirtle, who covers the Leafs for The Globe & Mail, wrote this about the team's captain late in the regular season:
What’s important to note about Phaneuf’s career year in Calgary isn’t necessarily the production. What was starkly different was actually the fact he wasn’t relied on to be all things in all situations. He split time playing with Anders Eriksson and Adrian Aucoin on a type of sheltered, offence-first second unit while stay-at-homers Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich drew the defensive zone faceoffs and first-line assignments.
They didn’t trust Phaneuf to do the heavy lifting. And it makes you wonder how much he’s been miscast in Toronto.
Under Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, Phaneuf starts a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any defenceman in the NHL. He faces a higher quality of competition than any other defenceman, including getting pummelled by David Backes’s big line in Tuesday’s loss.
He is, in short, in the Chris Pronger role without being Chris Pronger, and if you look at the over all results, they’re not always pretty.
No, they're not pretty. The Leafs' shot differential woes have been well-documented, which makes it rather concerning that they were outshot to a greater degree with Phaneuf on the ice at even-strength this season than with him off it. He logged a ton of minutes at evens and the Leafs were completely shelled in those minutes—controlling just 40.8% of all shot attempts. As Mirtle notes, these were more difficult minutes in terms of the quality of opposing players Phaneuf was facing and where he was starting his shifts than those of any other defenseman in the NHL. But usage alone can't explain away shot differential numbers that poor. There's more to it than that, as Tyler Dellow demonstrated in a series of posts this season.
Under Randy Carlyle, who became the Leafs' head coach near the end of the 2011-12 season, Phaneuf's shot differential following defensive-zone faceoffs has cratered compared to his numbers in those situations under Ron Wilson and in Calgary. This isn't surprising since the Leafs' breakout "strategy" under Carlyle is essentially to chip it out and wait for it to come back in; defensemen are expected to make the safe play and simply get the puck out of the defensive zone by any means necessary rather than attempt controlled zone exits to fuel an attack the other way. Carlyle's Leafs also turtle with a lead more than any other team in the NHL save Buffalo. Unsurprisingly, Phaneuf plays a ton of minutes when Toronto is protecting a lead, another major driver of his poor shot differential.
So there's considerable evidence that Carlyle's tactics and usage have made Phaneuf look worse defensively over the past few seasons than he really is. Playing for a far more competent coaching staff in San Jose and behind better forwards should help, as should the fact that he won't be expected to be "the guy" for the Sharks in either a leadership or on-ice sense. He won't wear a letter on his jersey in San Jose and he won't be expected to log Sisyphean defensive minutes, or even first-pairing minutes. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers would likely draw top opposing forwards and start the bulk of their shifts in the defensive zone while Phaneuf would see second-tier opposition and have a defensive safety blanket in Justin Braun that would allow him to focus on the part of the game at which he's always excelled: offense. Only six defensemen have scored more points than Phaneuf since he entered the league and, despite coming off a down year, Phaneuf has still totaled more than 100 points over his last three seasons. He's a potent threat, especially on the power play, and could be an even-strength asset if used in the way the Sharks would be likely to use him. He's undoubtedly an upgrade over Brad Stuart.
On the other hand, Phaneuf is 29 so it's probably unfair to pin the entirety of his decline on Carlyle. Granted, defensemen tend to age more gracefully than forwards and it seems likely Phaneuf would be a more effective player in San Jose than Toronto but expecting a return to his Calgary form is probably unrealistic. Also, despite his power play production, Phaneuf is more of a trigger-man with the man-advantage than the quarterback in Dan Boyle who he'd be expected to replace in that game state. He's also mainly patrolled the right side in Toronto despite his left shot, although that probably has more to do with the Leafs' dearth of right-handed defensemen than a preference on his part. There's also the cap hit of $7 million through his age 35 season to consider which, even if the Leafs eat a chunk of it, is a hefty sum to gamble on Phaneuf returning to top-pairing quality when removed from Carlyle's system. If the Sharks acquire him, they had better be damn sure his poor defensive results these past two seasons have been driven almost entirely by circumstance, something I'm personally not 100% convinced of at this point.
As with any trade, it's the price the Sharks will be expected to cough up that matters. If all it takes to land Phaneuf is a combination of picks, prospects and either Brad Stuart or Tyler Kennedy to clear cap space, that's one thing. If it takes Joe Pavelski, that's another. The amount of salary the Leafs are willing to eat is obviously also crucial. $7 million a year for Phaneuf's 29-35-year-old seasons is unsettling but a $5.5 million hit with a rising cap? That might not be terrible. Ultimately, Phaneuf is a high-risk, high-reward solution for plugging a hole on the San Jose blueline and both the cost of acquiring him and the cap hit the Sharks will be on the hook for determines whether the reward outweights the risk. Honestly, if the Sharks are going to trade for a left-shot Maple Leafs defenseman I'd much rather it be the far-younger and far-less-expensive Jake Gardiner than Phaneuf.