Feschuk: Maple Leafs teardown likely isn’t done with Dion Phaneuf trade

As the Maple Leafs bid adieu to their captain Tuesday, there was a current that ran through their parting words.

The Leafs have traded captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators.

There was reverence expressed for Dion Phaneuf and what he’d accomplished wearing the C for the Maple Leafs for 397 games. It was polite, respectful stuff. Every burial deserves as much, even if this particular shovelling primarily amounted to a salary dump of Phaneuf’s $7-million cap hit, which will now rest in peace on the books of the Ottawa Senators through 2020-21.

Head coach Mike Babcock heralded the 30-year-old Phaneuf as “a real good, good man.” Nazem Kadri called the nine-player trade announced Tuesday morning “tough to swallow,” remembering Phaneuf as a great mentor. Morgan Rielly echoed those sentiments, calling Phaneuf a “good person and a good leader.”

None of that meant it wasn’t a great trade for the Maple Leafs, the continuation of a teardown that has also shipped out the high-priced likes of Phil Kessel and David Clarkson to give a management team led by team president Brendan Shanahan the salary-cap flexibility to rebuild the roster in its preferred image. Even players who lamented Phaneuf’s departure — just like critics who linked Phaneuf to some of the worst moments in recent franchise history — could see as much.

“With what’s going on with this team and this franchise, when you move a guy like that, it’s more for the future than the here and now,” Rielly acknowledged. “As players we have to accept that. You lose a good friend, you lose a good player, but it’s for the best for the franchise moving forward.”

Along with Phaneuf the Leafs sent a package of relatively insignificant pieces Ottawa’s way, among them journeyman forward Matt Frattin and minor leaguers Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and Cody Donaghey. In return Toronto took on a load of damaged goods, including 25-year-old Jared Cowen, a six-foot-five defenceman with 249 NHL games on his resume who’s been a frequent healthy scratch; winger Milan Michalek, a 31-year-old who’s been regularly hampered by injury, and Colin Greening, a 29-year-old forward who has spent the bulk of this season in the AHL. But Toronto also acquired 2017 second-round draft pick, not to mention Tobias Lindberg, a six-foot-three winger who was a fourth-round pick in the 2013 draft and has put up promising American Hockey League numbers.
The punctuation mark on the deal, from Toronto’s perspective, was a dollar sign; Toronto will not retain any money on Phaneuf’s contract. A year ago, as the trade deadline approached and the Detroit Red Wings kicked tires on Phaneuf, the matter of retained salary was among the sticking points in negotiations. The Maple Leafs were hoping their partner in the deal would absorb in the neighbourhood of $2 million of Phaneuf’s cap hit. The deal, for that reason and others, did not get done.
And that’s where Babcock deserves credit. The Toronto head coach inherited Phaneuf in the wake of last season’s public-relations debacle, wherein Phaneuf was seen as the ringleader of a team that was perennially unsuccessful and supremely unlikeable. Babcock did at least a couple of things to change that perception. First, he reduced Phaneuf’s role to second-pairing status, lessening his workload and bettering his performance. Second, Babcock was relentlessly, even disingenuously positive about Phaneuf. He pumped up Phaneuf’s on-ice acumen. He raved about his off-ice citizenship. He used Toronto’s massive media market to amplify the message.

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