ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said he got chills as he walked up to Michigan Stadium Tuesday afternoon. Not sure if it was the prospect of leading his team into the Winter Classic against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday or the prospect of having locked up a seven-year contract extension that will pay him $49 million over the life of the deal.
"It's such an exciting day for me personally to be able to sign this contract and with the Winter Classic it's just an unbelievable thing for me to be able to do it and to do it here," Phaneuf told reporters shortly before the Leafs took the ice for their only pre-Winter Classic practice.
Phaneuf's deal will kick in next fall and he admitted that he and his agents did discuss the alternatives had he not signed an extension and instead became a free agent next summer. But, in the end, Phaneuf said he believes in this Maple Leafs team and its ability to bring a championship to Toronto, which has been without a Stanley Cup since 1967.
"That's a big reason why I re-signed because I believe in the group we have and the pieces we have in place," Phaneuf said. "To be completely honest with you, you do have meetings about if it does go the other way. But it was an easy decision for me to stay here and be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I really believe that we're building something special
"It was an easy decision for me."
The defenseman has in some ways become a polarizing figure since becoming a Leaf. He was named captain shortly after being acquired from Calgary in what was a lopsided deal in favor of the Leafs in January 2010, and while there have been periods of tremendous play, there has also been enough intermittently impulsive or reckless play to keep Phaneuf from being truly embraced by Leafs fans.
Still, he has been the team's steadiest defender this season and GM Dave Nonis defended the deal, saying Phaneuf's numbers and level of play stack up favorably with the top defensemen in the game.
"We feel his game is getting better. He's a player we can build around and add to and keep moving forward," Nonis said.
The GM insisted this wasn't a case of signing Phaneuf to an extension because there were no other options.
"You look at his numbers, and people love looking at numbers these days," Nonis said. "I would tell people to look at them. Look at where he stacks up for minutes played, points, who he plays against. He's done a lot of good things for us. So, he's earned this contract. It's not that we don't have anyone to replace him. I think if that's why we were signing him, we'd be making a mistake."
Still, the fact of the matter is that there were no obvious options for the Leafs had they not re-signed their captain. The free-agent market for the summer of 2014 is incredibly thin in general, and specifically the market is bereft of top-end defensemen in their prime.