Back on July 23 when the Toronto Maple Leafs announced they’d hired Lou Lamoriello to be their GM, it was fair to wonder whether or not they had made the right move. In a way, it actually seemed a little counterintuitive at the time. After all, Lamoriello was approaching his 74th birthday and had presided over a New Jersey Devils franchise that was in an on-ice decline. It was at least reasonable to debate whether he’d lost his touch or had the chops to oversee a painful rebuild.
Question answered, accompanied by a conga line of exclamation marks. The Maple Leafs, who have gotten very adept at trading untradeable players and contracts, did it again, moving a veteran, middling defenseman with five years and $35 million remaining on his deal in Dion Phaneuf in their division to the Ottawa Senators and getting back a young defenseman with a ton to prove in Jared Cowen, a second-round pick in 2017 and a 6-foot-3, 215 pound prospect who has been a pleasant surprise wherever he had played in Tobias Lindberg. Milan Michalek, who has one year left on his deal at $4 million, will be long gone by the time the Maple Leafs become a competitive team. Colin Greening has spent most of this season in the minors and carries a cap hit of $2.65 million, but there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to play on this NHL team as a bottom-six player until his contract runs out after next season.
(In the short-term, the Leafs have actually acquired $9.75 million in Michalek, Cowen and Greening in exchange for Phaneuf’s $7 million, but their contracts expire after next season. Phaneuf will still have four more years. Although the Leafs could conceivably buy Cowen out after this season and receive a rare cap credit of $650,000 and bury $975,000 of Greening's cap space in the minors.)
And this is exactly why Brendan Shanahan went out and got Lamoriello last summer. It turns out, Lamoriello has not lost a thing. He’s still the master of the trade and, just as importantly in a major market, is also a master of keeping it quiet. If word of this deal had leaked out early, chances are the backlash in Ottawa would have been so severe the Senators might not have made the deal. The fact that Lamoriello got return and did not have to pick up any of Phaneuf’s cap space was brilliant. And the fact that he did so without compromising any of the Leafs future plans – none of the players the Leafs gave up is considered even a middling prospect at the moment – is a testament to Lamoriello’s greatest asset, his ability to assess players.
(Remember, Lamoriello was part of the brain trust that decided three summers ago that David Clarkson wasn’t worth the term and money the Leafs were prepared to give him and he was spot on. Like anyone else, Lamoriello is wrong sometimes, but he’s often bang on in his player assessment, something that has been sorely lacking with the Leafs over the years.)
But this deal was brilliant on a number of fronts. The first was Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s ability to employ Phaneuf in a way that transformed him from whipping boy to a player another team might like to have on its roster. Babcock showed faith in Phaneuf and stood by him and, just as vitally, took some of the heavy lifting off his shoulders in terms of matchups, which put him in a far more positive light. Phaneuf is not as bad as some Maple Leaf fans would have you think, but he’s not near as good as his salary and term on his contract. Babcock’s rehabilitation of Phaneuf this season is an enormous key to the Leafs being able to do this deal.
With that taken care of, Lamoriello then went to work. One of the reasons the Leafs didn’t hire an unproven GM with no experience was that with this rebuild, it was vital they find someone with a lot of experience making trades and dealing with GMs around the league. They needed someone who could command the respect of his peers and would not get hoodwinked in a deal. There are not many executives out there who fit that description better than Lamoriello.
In Michalek, the Leafs get an injury-prone guy who can be decently productive when healthy. But you can never really count on that and, in fact, starts his career with the Leafs on the injured list. Cowen will be an interesting read. He couldn’t get into the lineup in Ottawa and looks nothing like the player people envisioned he would be, but the Leafs have a year to rehabilitate him under Babcock before deciding what to do. In Greening, they have a guy who once scored 17 goals in the NHL and will fit in their bottom six. Lindberg, who helped the Oshawa Generals to the Memorial Cup last season and has a good relationship with assistant coach D.J. Smith, could ultimately be the key to this whole trade. In the short term, he’ll add to what has become an impressive group of prospects.
One thing this trade does not do is put the Leafs any closer to getting Steven Stamkos this summer. The Leafs already had the cap space to make him a huge offer and if Stamkos has any designs on winning in the near future, that’s not going to happen in Toronto, with or without Phaneuf in the lineup. If Stamkos ends up in Toronto, it will be for money and the opportunity to be on the ground floor of an exciting rebuild. That hasn’t changed.
And the Leafs are not done here. On the ice, Babcock has them playing, most nights at least, with the requisite effort to make them competitive. In the front office, the systemic tank continues and will be in full force as the trade deadline approaches and the Leafs continue to purge veterans on short-term deals in return for draft picks and/or prospects.
The diabolical plan is working to perfection. And at the controls is Lamoriello, as shrewd and cunning as he has always been.