Much of the talk surrounding the Anaheim Ducks has focused (as it seems every other team in the league is) on improving the defense for the postseason. Just last night on NBC's Wednesday Night Rivalry resident TSN guru Bob McKenzie named both the Ducks and Nashville Predators as being "in play" for 27-year old Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson, who is a pending unrestricted free agent and due a raise from his $3.3 mil. cap hit for 2014-15. Despite the upside of Franson, there is another defenseman from Toronto that the Ducks should be targeting that has the potential to put Anaheim over the top this season: Dion Phaneuf.
Anaheim has yet to be named as a team interested in the Maple Leafs captain, as the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch noted four days ago that the New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars, and (somewhat hilariously) Calgary Flames have all shown interest. However, as recently as two weeks ago Sportsnet's Mike Johnston suggested the Ducks as a potential destination for Phaneuf. Much of the talk has Phaneuf as a piece to be moved during the offseason, but considering the cap situation facing Toronto, the Ducks may be wise to take a shot this trade deadline.
The Maple Leafs are up against the salary cap with an estimated $1.2 mil. in space according to Spotrac, and Phaneuf's $7 mil. cap hit is the second largest on the squad. Both Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier will be restricted free agents this summer, and with both due for raises the team will need to clear cap space if they're to bring one or both back. Though Toronto's current struggles owe in large part to a woefully low five-on-five shooting percentage under interim head coach Peter Horachek, the plummet down the standings has opened the floodgates on discussion about rebuilding and moving key pieces.
Enter the Ducks, who sitting atop the league with 72 points continue to be part of talks about bringing in defensemen. A move for Phaneuf would be on the order of magnitude of the deal that brought Chris Pronger to the franchise in 06-07, and likely require a similarly rich deal. Working in Anaheim's favor is the estimated $12 mil. in cap space to take on a deal that runs until the 2021 season, and while the team does have an internal cap this is the kind of move that could truly vault the squad into the elite strata that the Samueli family has show they have been willing to spend to support in the previous championship season. Another cap angle to remember for the Ducks is Francois Beauchemin's $3.5 mil. coming off the books, as well as Ilya Bryzgalov's $1.9 mil. this offseason. The next question becomes who or what would go the other way?
Johnston specifically names Matt Beleskey, Devante Smith-Pelly, Nick Ritchie, Shea Theodore, and Nick Sorensen as potential pieces that could get the deal done. Considering Toronto's wants to make cap room, Beleskey's $1.35 mil. price tag coupled with his production this year on an expiring contract would certainly be appealing. To fill the roster hole a defenseman like Eric Brewer could work as well, taking up just over $2 mil. in cap space with his contract term also ending this offseason. If the Leafs are looking for additional youth, the likes of seeming perpetually on-the-cusp 23 year old Emerson Etem (13G 6A in 18 games with Norfolk) could appeal thanks to his speed and scoring touch, or perhaps 22 year old center William Karlsson, countryman of ace Toronto prospect William Nylander who could help add to organizational depth down the middle. There's also always the opportunity to throw in what will likely be a very low in the round draft pick to aid in a rebuild as well.
Considering the costs bandied about for other available defenseman this trade deadline it's reasonable to infer at the absolute minimum that Anaheim would have to part with 2 players and a pick. For a player of Phaneuf's caliber the price tag very likely will be higher, especially considering the rumored cost the Vancouver Canucks were asking for Ryan Kesler at last year's trade deadline. However, the Maple Leafs are in a completely different situation, and a deal that brings back expiring contracts as well as prospects could be very appetizing.
A final point to consider would be how Phaneuf would fit in with the team, considering his acrimony with captain Ryan Getzlaf dating back to the two's junior years. However if Pronger could be roundly welcomed after eliminating the team in the Western Conference Final with the Oilers in 06, there's no reason why Phaneuf couldn't garner the same acceptance. Pairing him with Sami Vatanen could be an extremely appealing duo, providing the kind of skill and hammer the club looked to create with the signing of Clayton Stoner. An additional benefit is it could lessen some of the load as far as the 23-25+ minutes per game Phaneuf has averaged with the Leafs every season since he arrived in Toronto in 09-10. Phaneuf would also no longer be burdened by the spotlight of the Toronto media as well as having to be the public face of a team as captain. With Kesler under contract and guaranteed in Anaheim for this and next season, there may be no better time for a move of this magnitude.
The price to land a defender the likes of Dion Phaneuf will not be small, and while general manager Bob Murray has be loath in seasons past to swing for the fences, as TSN's Travis Yost writes the stars seem to be aligning for the Ducks to make a serious run this postseason. With the acknowledged need for a defender, why not take a shot at acquiring the top three defenseman that this franchise has desperately been looking for since the retirement of Scott Niedermayer and trade of Pronger? It's a high risk, high reward proposition that could make for a very special spring.