ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis was convinced that a team would give defenseman Dion Phaneuf a seven-year contract if he made it to the unrestricted free agent market on July 1. He figured that team should be the Maple Leafs, and there's no reason to wait until the calendar flips to 2014.
Phaneuf and Nonis jointly announced the team captain's seven-year contract extension at a press conference Tuesday before the Maple Leafs practiced at Michigan Stadium in advance of the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC).
Financial terms of the contract were not released, but media reports place the average annual value at $7 million. Nonis indicated that it's a market-value contract for a top defenseman who is 28 years old and in his ninth NHL season.
"Dion was going to get seven years regardless. If we weren't going to pay him, he was going to get it," Nonis said. "From our standpoint it wasn't that Dion can't play longer. He was eligible for an eighth year. I think he'll play beyond the term of his contract. He's not in his 30s, he's in his 20s. His game is rounding out, it's getting better. I don't think there is any reason why he can't play the seven years and look for another contract."
Phaneuf was particularly excited to be able to announce his contract on the site of the NHL's biggest regular-season event. He said his family, including his mom and dad, brother and wife, actress Elisha Cuthbert, are all in town with him to celebrate the Winter Classic experience.
Signing the contract now makes the celebration that much sweeter.
"Well, just when I drove up to the building I got chills," Phaneuf said. "You grow up playing on outdoor rinks as a kid and to be able to come here and obviously with this news being announced, to have my family here…it's going to be a special game to be a part of. I'm looking forward to stepping out there not only [Tuesday] to practice, but [Wednesday] when there are 110,000 people. It's going to be an experience I'll never forget as a player."
Phaneuf will step onto the ice as the Maple Leafs' captain, a position he inherited on June 14, 2010 and one he now says fits him like one of his tailor-made suits.
"I've definitely grown into the role," Phaneuf said of the captaincy. "I've learned a lot. I'd be lying if I sat up here and said I didn't. So I'm very comfortable in the role. I've definitely learned a lot and I feel that I've grown as the leader of our team."
Phaneuf's leadership is another reason why Nonis chose not to wait to gamble with potentially losing him to free agency. The GM feels Phaneuf leads by example in the dressing room and on the ice. The evidence, Nonis said, is in the minutes he plays.
Phaneuf regularly plays against the opposition's best forwards and starts most of his shifts in the neutral zone or defensive zone. According to ExtraSkater.com, Phaneuf starts 38 percent of his total shifts in the defensive zone versus 23.8 percent in the offensive zone. His percentage of offensive zone starts is the lowest among all Maple Leafs defensemen.
He averages 24:21 of ice time per game. He has 15 points and a plus-13 rating.
"He's done enough to prove to us that he's a player near the top of the League for how he stacks up against the top defenseman," Nonis said. "People love looking at numbers these days so I tell people to look at them. Look at how he stacks up for minutes played, points, who he plays against -- he's done a lot of good things for us. He's earned this contract."
Phaneuf's contract extension gives Toronto six players who are signed through the 2017-18 season, including Phil Kessel, David Clarkson, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak.
"We still need to add some pieces around players like Dion, Phil, Lupes, JVR," Nonis said. "Those are good players that will help any team in this League win, but we need to add around that group."
Phaneuf wouldn't have re-signed if he didn't already like the core in place and think Nonis would go to work to make the team better.
"Obviously we're going to add pieces to our group, but I believe in the group we have," Phaneuf said. "It's an exciting team to be a part of. We've grown a lot together and there's obviously room to grow, but that's why I re-signed in Toronto. My goal is to win a championship here. We've got pieces in place and I really look forward to continue the next seven years in Toronto."