The Toronto Maple Leafs sent captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators in a nine-team blockbuster Tuesday. Let’s sort through who goes where and why.
Whoa. Whoa. A nine-player trade? Between two teams historically characterized as bitter divisional and geographical rivals? Involving one of the team’s captains? Let’s breathe and try to sort through the blockbuster between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators.
Credit to Bob McKenzie for being first on the story. The official trade:
Toronto Maple Leafs receive…
Jared Cowen, D
Milan Michalek, LW
Colin Greening, LW
Tobias Lindberg, RW
2017 second-round pick
Ottawa Senators receive…
Dion Phaneuf, D
Matt Frattin, RW
Casey Bailey, C/RW
Ryan Rupert, C
Cody Donaghey, D
Before we dive into the specifics of each piece, let’s get to the point and examine what this trade is really about.
The Maple Leafs, in Year 1 of the Pain Rebuild, unloaded five more seasons of captain Phaneuf’s contract at a $7-million cap hit. And somehow, they managed to do it without retaining one cent of his salary. That’s what this trade was about for the Leafs above all else. It’s a coup for GM Lou Lamoriello and the Toronto management team. Secondly, the 2017-second round pick is nice. Everyone likes second-round picks. Lastly, the Leafs acquired several NHL-caliber players with contracts expiring after 2016-17. So they have more bodies set to come off the books soon and more pieces to flip at the 2017 trade deadline if they remain out of contention. Heck, if they really want to, they could explore takers for the likes of Cowen at this trade deadline.
The Leafs have also freed up a significant amount of cap space for the summer, as well as their captaincy, and it’s easy to make the connection between those facts and a rumored pursuit of Steven Stamkos, who is still poised to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. They can easily afford to extend the contracts of restricted free agents Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri and, if they decide he’s worth retaining, UFA James Reimer. The only current Leafs regulars under contract for beyond next season right now: Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Jake Gardiner and, if you really want to count him, Nathan Horton.
Cowen, a 2009 first-round pick, hasn’t lived up to his potential. He isn’t quite as physical as he should be given his 6-foot-5, 238-pound frame and, at 25, he’d already be a top-pair guy if he ever was going to be. So while the Leafs and coach Mike Babcock could theoretically tap into something with him, it’s more likely Cowen is just a contract Toronto had to pick up to help Ottawa clear some salary. He carries a $3.1-million cap hit. He’s not necessarily part of the Leafs’ long-term plans now. Tobias Lindberg might be, though. Lamoriello said Lindberg was “the one individual prospect we targeted.” He doesn’t grade as a high-end prospect, but he’s only 20, he has good size on the wing, and he’s looked impressive in his first year of North American pro hockey, amassing 22 points in 34 games with AHL Binghamton.
Michalek, carrying a $4-million cap hit, is out indefinitely with a broken finger. He could still be Feb. 29 trade bait if he’s healthy in time, but he’s more likely to be a movable piece next year. Greening is merely a warm body the Leafs can call up if they don’t want to rush any kids form the AHL Marlies.
Now, from Ottawa’s perspective, the trade is a vote of confidence for Phaneuf. On a team with Erik Karlsson captaining and leading the blueline, Phaneuf will never have to be ‘The Guy’ anymore. The fact the Sens were indeed one of the 10 teams on Phaneuf’s modified no-trade list, per Pierre LeBrun, suggests he’ll be reasonably happy there, too. Phaneuf began his career in Calgary looking like a future Hall of Famer, like the second coming of Scott Stevens, but his play declined and he never flirted with those heights as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
That said, just because Phaneuf struggled at times to be a 25-minute-per-night Clydesdale doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective top-four blueliner. Perhaps the Sens give him a shot at the top pair on Karlsson’s left side. And if not, they can find a home for him somewhere in a D-corps featuring Karlsson, Marc Methot, Cody Ceci and Patrick Wiercioch, among others, with prospects like Thomas Chabot on the way. Phaneuf can essentially function as a rich man’s Cowen. Phaneuf will be an awfully expensive second-pair guy should he settle into that role, but he’ll be reasonably effective. He’s still just 30, he has decent mobility for his size, he still has snarl to his game and he can shoot the puck. It’s not like he’ll be 40 and a shell of a man by the end of his deal in Ottawa. He’ll be 36.
And while Phaneuf makes Ottawa better immediately, it’s inaccurate to characterize him as a “desperate” acquisition for GM Bryan Murray and the Sens, who sit four points out of an Eastern Conference wild-card spot. Phaneuf isn’t a rental. He’s a veteran, albeit a pricey one, who can provide some stability to a relatively young blueline corps over the next several years.
The other pieces Ottawa received aren’t significant. Undrafted D-man Cody Donaghey is a project still playing in the QMJHL. Frattin is like Greening in that he hasn’t matched the promise he showed when he debuted as an NHLer and he’s proven an effective AHLer. Bailey is a big forward with an NCAA background who is already 24 but hasn’t dominated as a pro. Rupert, an undersized center, has bounced between the ECHL and AHL and still has a bit of potential since he’s only 21.
But, let’s face it, this trade was really Dion Phaneuf for cap relief. Each team received what it needed. The deal is OK for the Sens and more than OK for the Leafs, who continue to gut their roster as they undergo the first true rebuild in franchise history.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin