ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tucked in the warmth on the surrounding grounds of the Big House, Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis made one point urgently clear as he announced the signing of Toronto's captain through 2021.
"We signed Dion to this deal because he deserved it," said Nonis on the eve of Wednesday's Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium.
But the success of the seven-year extension between the Leafs and Dion Phaneuf won't just be about the 28-year-old defender, but the ability of Nonis and the organization to surround him and the Toronto core with capable talent.
Right now that core includes at least six players; Phaneuf along with Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak – all signed until at least 2017. And while that group must remain productive – and increasingly so from a generally disappointing first half – the overall team success is likely dependent on the quality of talent the club adds in the coming years.
"We've added these pieces because we think that they can help us win long-term," said Nonis of that core group. "It's now going to be up to us to add players around them. We feel we have some pieces coming, but we're not where we need to be yet. We still need to add some pieces around players like Dion and Phil and [Lupul], JVR. Those are players that will help any team in this league win, but we need to continue to add to that group."
No team has done a more efficient job of surrounding their impressive core than the Chicago Blackhawks (though the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins could make equal argument).
"I think they're a model for the league, not just our hockey club," Randy Carlyle said of the defending Stanley Cup champions earlier this season.
Chicago's core is among the more dynamic in the league – much of it built through the draft – but the organization has done well in surrounding that group with wave upon wave of helpful young players and outside talent.
In recent years, the likes of Andrew Shaw (fifth round pick), Marcus Kruger (fifth round), Bryan Bickell (second round), Corey Crawford (second round) and Brandon Saad (second round) all proved invaluable toward the Blackhawks capturing their second Cup in four years last season.
For the Leafs that means improved drafting and development. It means finding more capable assets through the draft, ever an important tool in today's cap age.
"There's still only three ways to do [build around the core] – trade, free agency or the draft," said Nonis. "We have to do a better job in all three areas. But the draft is going to be more and more important as players start to earn six, seven, eight, nine, 10 million – who knows what the numbers are going to end up being.
"If you have players that are entry-level players or just coming out of entry-level that are earning substantially less that can contribute you're going to have a better chance of winning. We need to try to find some of those players."
Not only does that mean the continued development of young players like Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland and Jonathan Bernier, but success here and there from a solid and yet unspectacular prospect pool that features Matt Finn, Connor Brown, Petter Granberg, Dominic Toninato, and Josh Leivo.
It also means finding more useful players to contribute right now.
Chicago found help for example in the form of veterans like Johhny Oduya and Michal Handzus.
Uneven all season, Toronto's patchwork defence – which featured no major additions last summer – is a source requiring definite upgrading in the summer of 2014 and beyond.
As for Phaneuf, he may be an imperfect first defender, but is a capable first defender no less in a league where commodities of such kind are difficult to find and then keep.
More and more teams are locking up their most talented players long-term leaving the free agency pool increasingly weak and short of high-impact options, especially on defence. Among the top unsigned defenders for the summer of 2014 are 37-year-old Dan Boyle, 35-year-old Andrei Markov, and 29-year-old Dan Girardi.
Internally, the Leafs have promising long-term options for the top of their defence in the 19-year-old Rielly and 23-year-old Gardiner, but neither is near ready to assume the difficult duties Phaneuf holds at the moment. And while the likes of Finn, Granberg, Stuart Percy, and Tom Nilsson offer prospective hope further on down the line, they are suitably unknown commodities.
"If you're signing players because you don't have anyone to replace them you're making mistakes," said Nonis. "He's going to play at this level and beyond, I feel, for seven years and maybe beyond that. It's not that you don't have anyone to replace Dion, it's that he's done enough to prove to us that he is a player that is near the top of the league in terms of how he stacks up against the top defencemen."
The difficulty of his minutes is easy to overlook. His role on a generally unstable Toronto defence requires him to match up nightly against the most difficult competition in the league. In Wednesday's Winter Classic for example, that tall challenge will include large quantities of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
"I don't think you can look beyond the situations and positions that Randy puts him in," said Nonis. "They're not always the best situations. He plays some pretty tough minutes."
In fact, no defender in the league has faced more challenging competition in the past two seasons than the Leafs captain, this according to ExtraSkater.com. And though he's struggled to produce offence this season – 15 points in 39 games – Phaneuf has ranked amongst the top-20 at his position in offensive production in each of the past two seasons.
The Leafs were in a surprise in 2013, finishing fifth in the conference while nearly upending the eventual Cup finalist Bruins in the first round. But they've fallen under considerable strain this season – just four regulation wins since Nov. 1 – and have proven a poor defensive contingent again after struggling in that regard a year ago.
Phaneuf is more solution than problem. The Leafs simply need better players around him.
"You see some of the best players around the league," said Nonis, "if you put them on a team by themselves they're going to have a hard time winning. We think we're adding pieces that will help us win."