Dion Phaneuf is one of, if not the most, unfairly maligned player in Leafs history. Though Leafs fans gave him a hard time and blamed him for being the best defensemen on a horribly constructed and coached team, he is and was one of my favorite Leafs of all-time.
It isn’t his fault he was never used properly.
Phaneuf’s hard-hitting offensive-based game was something I was very excited about acquiring back when Burke was running the Leafs and it looked like a Phaneuf/Phil Kessel led team was going to be the best Leafs team in years. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.
Burke and Nonis turned out to be horrible general managers and the coaches they employed were equally incompetent. Had Phaneuf been a complimentary player instead of the team’s #1 d-man and captain, had the team not made terrible personnel decision after terrible personnel decision, I believe he would have been one of the most popular Leafs of all-time. His heart, scoring and toughness is the exact combination of traits Toronto fans love (see: Doug Gilmour, Darcy Tucker, Wendel Clark, et al).
So, it never really worked out. Not his fault. He was all class and determination and today marks the end of an era — a crappy era, but an era none the less. We can sit and be sad about how things never worked out, or we can be happy that the team has made a very positive move for the future of the franchise and looks to be in much better hands going forward.
For me, as a fan, I am sad to see Dion go. As an analyst of the team who must at least attempt some level of objectivity, this is a very good trade.
Breaking Down the Trade
By now you know who the Leafs got and who they gave up. You’ve been subjected to Stamkos-based frothing at the mouth and you have probably gotten over the excitement that a trade injects to the season. (Coincidentally, the trade occurred the day after I wrote about what a boring season it’s been so far!) So I won’t bore you with the details. What I want to focus on is why the Leafs won this trade and what they gained. So here goes:
1. Cap FlexibilityThe Leafs traded Phaneuf and some meaningless depth players for Milan Michalek (Age 30, cap-hit of $4 million, expires 2016-17), Colin Greening (29, $2.65, 2016-17), Jared Cowen (25, $3.1 million, 2016-17) and Tobias Lindberg, who is on an entry-level deal with a $700K cap-hit and who is signed through the 2017-18 season.
This means that while the Leafs will take on slightly more salary than they give up, they will be off the hook for the remaining five years of Phaneuf’s $7 million cap-hit contract.
Obviously this gives the team much greater flexibility going forward in a league where cap-space is almost as important as player acquisition.
2. A New Start
Dion could have settled into a second-pairing role and been effective, as he has been this year, but the Leafs needed a new start. Phaneuf is symbolic of a failed era as the captain and lynchpin of that roster. Moving him is the start of a new era, a new voice in the room, new leadership etc.
As much for perception as reality, the trading of Phaneuf leaves only Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul as the final tokens of the Burke/Nonis era.
3. One Extra Contract Space
The NHL has a limit of 50 contracts per team. If you’re a rebuilding team it is important to play the numbers game and get as many lottery tickets as possible in the hopes that one of them will turn out to be a star player who develops too late to have been a first-round pick. However, since you can only have 50 contracts, it is important to make space for new players by moving out the guys you don’t see as having a high enough ceiling to keep around.
By moving out Frattin, Bailey, Rupert, Donaghey and Phaneuf but only taking back four players, the Leafs create an extra spot to sign or acquire another player. This is a very important but seemingly overlooked facet to the trade.
4. Two Lottery Tickets
The cap-space is honestly a good enough return for what the Leafs gave up, so the fact that they also picked up a second-round pick and a decent prospect in Lindberg is just completely awesome.
The Leafs now have three of the top five primary points per ice-time players under age 23 in the AHL. That is kind of crazy. Lindberg joins an impressive list of “second tier” Leafs prospects that includes Josh Leivo, Brandon Leipsic, Connor Brown, Andreas Johnson and several others.
The team has cap flexibility going forward and in addition to their own draft choices, now possess the Penguins first-rounder in 2016 and the Senator’s second-rounder in 2017. This in addition to Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapenan and William Nylander. Yes, the future is very, very bright for the Leafs.
5. Makes Them Worse Now
This trade also has the added bonus that it makes the Leafs a worse team right now and thus gives them better odds at getting one of the top picks in the draft.
6. They Can Parlay the Players they Just GotIt is possible — if not entirely likely — that the Leafs could flip some of the players they just picked up. Cowen has a weird clause in his contract that actually makes it profitable to buy him out, so he might be worth a pick to another team.
Michalek might find his game a-la P.A Paranteau and be flippable at next year’s deadline. I don’t know if anyone would want Greening, but who knows? The point is, the Leafs might be able to turn these players into a couple of late-round flyers at some point and, given all the other positives for them in this transaction, that equates to found money.
In the end, I hate to see Phaneuf go, but it is for the best. The very, very best. The Leafs win this trade by such a large margin it’s insane. There are six (!) positives from the Leafs perspective and zero risk.
I have seen trades where you know instantly which team wins, but never one where the team that won took absolutely no risk. The Leafs don’t have to worry about Phaneuf coming back to haunt them, they don’t have to worry about giving up a super-star prospect or if one of the players they got back ends up being the worst player of all-time. They got their needed cap flexibility and everything else is gravy.
The most insane thing of all? They didn’t retain a dollar of Phaneuf’s salary.
Great day — and an exciting one — to be a Leafs fan.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.