The Maple Leafs returned to the ice Friday from a three-day Christmas break with a bit of a bang with rumours that Dion Phaneuf’s contract extension is imminent. “No comment,” Phaneuf said when asked about the buzz on social media that he is “very, very close” to an extension that will keep him in Toronto long term. Nothing appeared imminent Friday, but the expectation is that the deal will be unveiled by the time the club hits the Winter Classic on Wednesday. Phaneuf, the Leafs captain, is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent next season; the club locked up Phil Kessel earlier this season to avoid a similar situation. Now, it appears the club is doing the same for its captain, ensuring two key players remain with the organization for the next several years. It’s widely believed Phaneuf will pull down an extension worth $7 million per season over seven years. The dollars and terms of the contract — which have long been speculated on — have given rise to mixed reaction from Leafs fans and the club’s critics. But Phaneuf is in an ideal situation. Toronto’s cap picture will only brighten with the NHL increasing its cap next season, and projecting sustained increases over the next several years. Flush with new money from the Rogers TV deal, and with potential for a windfall if there’s expansion, the NHL cap will rise to $71 million (estimate) next season; forecasts have called for as much as $80 million in the next 18 months. Toronto’s leadership situation also ties directly to Phaneuf over the long term; the club essentially does not have anyone else like him to tie their “C” too; in addition, the club, while bolstered with a young talent in Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, does not have anyone to match or replace Phaneuf’s leadership on the ice or in the community. Phaneuf leads the Leafs in plus-minus, and time on the ice. He is the face of the franchise and is poised to work his way into the hearts of Leafs fans, who yearn for a player they can truly “love.” In the past, that situation was bountiful: the likes of Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Tie Domi and others who gave Leafs Nation a virtual excess of iconic Leaf players. This current roster has yet to achieve a similar situation with the fan base.