Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray understood the gravity of the situation. For his struggling team to have any hope of returning to the playoffs this season, he had to patch up their 28th-ranked defense. And it would take more than a minor move to plug the leaks.
So Murray took his swing on Tuesday morning, acquiring Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf as the headliner in a shocking nine-player deal that also saw forwards Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and defenseman Cody Donaghey head to Ottawa in exchange for forwards Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Tobias Lindberg, defenseman Jared Cowen, and a 2017 second-round pick.
The knock on Phaneuf as a player in Toronto was that he was ill-suited for the role of go-to defender, that he lacked the speed and hockey sense to match up head-to-head with the league’s elite attackers. That won’t be a problem in Ottawa where Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot will continue to carry the load as the top pair. Phaneuf can settle in on the second pair with Cody Ceci, who is developing nicely this season, and should thrive now that he’ll be facing lesser competition.
And where he was the voice in the Leafs locker room, he can blend in a bit more with Ottawa, adding support to the leadership group that is already in place without being the face of the organization.
Even if they can’t mount another late-season charge like last year’s—and with four points and four teams separating the Sens from a wild berth, they’re in tough—this situation looks like a long-term win for the Sens. Murray has strengthened the team during Karlsson’s prime years, and he ditched a couple of unwanted contracts in Greening and Cowen, clearing the short-term cap space that could make it easier to re-sign RFA winger Mike Hoffman this summer.
It seems to work out nicely as well for the Leafs, who have purged three high salary/long term contracts from their books during the past 12 months. Phaneuf and the $7 million cap hit he’ll carry through 2020-21 were poor fits for a club in the early stages of a rebuild, much like those of David Clarkson and Phil Kessel who were dumped before him.
And that's where the real value is for Toronto. Although Lindberg and the pick offer hope for the future, this was all about clearing out the last of their crushing commitments and freeing themselves up to do something if the right opportunity comes along, say, later this summer when free agency kicks in. No one's saying Steven Stamkos will be one of those opportunities, but if he happens to have any interest in signing with his hometown team, well, the door is open.
In the meantime, they took on some dead wood in short-term place fillers in Michalek (currently on IR) and Greening (one NHL game this season). Neither are likely to make much of an impact between now and when their nearly $7 million in salaries come off the ledger after the 2016-17 season, but both could be used in depth roles to shore up a painfully thin forward corps.
Lamoriello also added an immediate replacement for Phaneuf in Jared Cowen. The 25-year-old has struggled with his consistency in Ottawa, but the pieces are there for him to become a solid depth defender. He’s only on the books through 2016-17, so Toronto will have time to evaluate its options without being locked in long-term.
The Leafs are a weaker team in the short run, but that's ok. A few more balls in the lottery hopper might even end up tilting this deal heavily in their favor.