With the Leafs doing really (really, really) well this year, I'm not surprised to see more love for Dion Phaneuf than in past seasons. Maybe love isn't the right word, perhaps just less hate. Either way, it's a contract year for him and word is that he might get a 7 year $7 million a year deal from the Leafs.
I think this would a huge mistake.
Most of the argument for giving Phaneuf this deal is something akin to "who else could fill his minutes" or "he plays the hardest minutes and still does well". Both could be valid arguments, except for the fact that the Leafs are absolutely one of the worst defensive teams in the league.
Looking at just this season Toronto is ranked 29th out of 30 teams in Shots Against per Game, lucky they are rated 5th in Save Percentage. If their goaltending was merely average (i.e. the same save percentage as the rest of the league averages) they would move from 6th (2.31 per game w/ a .935 SV%) in Goals Against per Game all the way down to 25th (3.16 per game w/ a .911 SV%)
That might not matter since they score so many goals (3rd in the league with 3.31 per game) on so few shots (26th in the league with 26.8 per game), but you can see where this is headed too. If they had an average shooting percentage instead of the highest in the league, they would move from 3rd (3.31 per game with a 12.35% SH%) to 22nd (2.38 per game with a 8.89% SH).
So obviously the (current) strength of goaltending and the success of their shooters has A LOT to do with Toronto's current success. Even the most die hard members of Blue and White Nation realize that if we were scoring (and being scored on) at the pace our SF/SA should have us being scored on, we'd have a record similar to Buffalo's.
While all that is interesting, what does it have to do with Phaneuf?
Well, simply put, Phaneuf (or any other defenceman) logging big minutes against the oppositions top guys is certainly of value to a team. However, when the standard to which he is being held is abysmally low, I'm not certain of the value of the comparison. That is to say, the Leafs have the lowest Fenwick % (basically the percentage of all attempted shots on goal - minus blocked shots - that are for your team) of any team in the league, meaning that the opposition directs way more rubber in the direction of their netminders than any other team (ditto for Corsi % by the way which is the same as Fenwick but includes blocked shots). The WORST out of 30 teams. When Phaneuf is on the ice (admittedly against generally the oppositions better players) that ratio improves slightly to be the 29th worst (ahead of Buffalo) in the league.
So is Phaneuf a calming influence or a minute eater on the Toronto blue line? Relatively speaking: yes. He takes on the opponents best opposition and manages to post slightly better numbers than the rest of his team (in terms of Fenwick for/against), but still among the worst in the league.
Of course there are counter arguments, like the save percentage is high because the Leafs limit quality scoring chances. Or maybe the shots against are high (and shots for low) because the Leaf offence uses a lot of creativity to generate only quality scoring chances, but that creativity creates a lot of scoring opportunities for the other team. Either way the point remains that Dion Phaneuf does not have an appreciable effect on reducing these opportunities for the other team. If he truly is an elite player worthy of an elite contract, or an elite defenceman capable of taking on opponents' elite forwards, you would expect to see some evidence of it. The best the Leafs can say is they are no worse off than normal (which is to say THE WORST in the NHL) when their top defenceman takes on their opponents top forwards.
Over the course of the season as their shooting percentage and save percentage tend to normalize, Phaneuf (and the rest of the Leafs defence) will begin to look really porous again. It would be a huge mistake for Leaf management to give Phaneuf a contract extension based solely on hot goalies and shooters.
Obviously this analysis is based entirely on this season and ignores past seasons. You can take my word for it that the Leafs (and Phaneuf) had equally brutal Fenwick and Corsi percentages in previous years. It also doesn't take into account the fact that $7m/year for 7 years would make him 35 at the end of the deal and, given his style of play and current abilities, it's unlikely that he would be worth even close to that towards the end of his deal. This would make the contract a hindrance on the team in a few seasons time (although we could relatively easily absorb it over the next two or three).
If I were Nonis, I would either trade him at the deadline (provided the Leafs are doing well and his value is reasonably high) if I didn't think I could make a legitimate Cup run or wait to negotiate with him at the end of this season. Offer something closer to what he's worth ($5mm on a longer deal or possibly $7mm on a 1 yr if they are desperate to keep him). There is a strong chance he'd go somewhere else in UFA at that point, but it's a risk you have to take as GM in order to achieve longer term success. Signing over-rated players to huge contracts is more of a NY Rangers thing.