Rebuild begins for Leafs with Phaneuf trade

Ever since coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello were hired this past summer by president Brendan Shanahan, the mantra for the Leafs has been ‘short-term pain for long-term gain.’

The philosophy was further cemented by Lamoriello on Tuesday, pulling the trigger on a nine-player swap with the arch rival Senators. Much-maligned defenceman Dion Phaneuf is now a Leafs’ former captain. Minor leaguers Cody Donaghey, Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey and Ryan Rupert are also headed to the nation’s capital.

The Leafs receive in the deal forward Milan Michalek and defenceman Jared Cowen, as well as AHL-er Colin Greening and prospect Tobias Lindberg. Toronto also gets a second-round 2017 draft pick in the deal.

Lamoriello’s savvy is most evident in making the transaction without the Leafs having to retain any of Phaneuf’s salary. Including this season, Phaneuf has five years left on a deal signed on New Year’s Eve 2013, carrying a salary cap hit with an average annual value of $7 million per season.

Not that the Senators don’t receive any tangible value; in fact the provincial rivals are the winners in the short-term. For all his misgivings, Phaneuf at age 30 is still an adequate number-2 or number-3 blueliner. Under the microscope in Toronto, his mistakes were magnified with little to no forgiveness.

Phaneuf – the captain – with a huge contract, with zero playoff series wins in his six-year tenure in a Leafs uniform, was an easy target of frustrated fans. He was not a Norris-calibre defenceman, yet he was paid like one. He was not worthy of Drew Doughty or Shea Weber-like minutes, but there he was, on the ice, for more than 25 minutes per game.

Thankfully for Phaneuf, the newest Senator in that team’s lineup was rejuvenated by Babcock for the first half of this season. Not in the sense of blossoming into the franchise defenceman that he was projected to be in Calgary, and later Toronto, but merely managed into an on-ice role where he didn’t have to log as much ice time, and be expected to bear the entire burden of a Leafs back end that will inevitably give up more goals on average.

Phaneuf should form an adequate second pairing with Cody Ceci and give Ottawa a boost for its run to the post-season.

From the Leafs’ perspective, not only does the team acquire huge cap flexibility, but it depletes the talent level on the blue line. And that’s a good thing, right? Of course.

Can you say Auston Matthews? Or Patrik Laine? Or Jesse Puljujarvi?

With a weaker roster, Toronto is expected to lose even more games, thus improving their chances in the draft lottery at landing the coveted first-overall pick. Even if the best-case scenario in Matthews, as projected, doesn’t work out, the Leafs certainly couldn’t be dissatisfied in landing either of the two high-scoring Finns who were dominant in winning gold on home soil at the World Junior Championships.

The Leafs also get a blue chip prospect in Lindberg, a 6’ 2” talented forward who won a Memorial Cup last year with Oshawa on a team coached by current Leafs assistant D.J. Smith.

More deals are expected out of Leafs land before the February 29 deadline. PA Parenteau and Roman Polak will almost certainly be wearing different sweaters come March.

The roster will be even thinner. The losses will accumulate.

But the June draft looks to be a potential windfall for the Leafs. Perhaps the team will land a prospect of the quality of Mitch Marner, or better.

Just like Lamoriello and company drew it up.


Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter: @Rob_DelMundo