How the Maple Leafs Hoodwinked the Senators into Trading for Dion Phaneuf

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How the Maple Leafs Hoodwinked the Senators into Trading for Dion Phaneuf
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs connected for a massive 10-piece trade centered on polarizing defenceman Dion Phaneuf. It was an embarrassingly lopsided victory for the Maple Leafs.

The full details were tweeted by James Mirtle of the Globe & Mail:

That Toronto was willing to trade a player signed until 2021 to a division rival should have set off klaxons on the bridge of the good ship Senator; that they were willing to do it without demanding a first-round pick or tent-pole prospect in exchange was even more alarming. At the NHL level, it always pays to look a gift horse in the mouth.

In Phaneuf’s case, the Maple Leafs succeeded in doing something that NHL teams often try and generally fail at. They deliberately worked to increase his value and then shipped him away; it’s commonly called a pump-and-dump and only rarely is it done masterfully enough that another team is fooled. In this case, the Senators were, as is obvious from the return Toronto managed to land.

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Dion Phaneuf and regular partner Jake Gardiner

It starts with his partner. Phaneuf typically played with Jake Gardiner this year, and the difference in his performance with and without player is breathtaking. As a duo, Gardiner and Phaneuf had a 53.2 percent Corsi rating, three points better than the team average. They were also on the ice for as many goals for as against, remarkable on a Maple Leafs team that has been badly outscored this year at evens.

Away from Gardiner this season, Phaneuf's Corsi number falls by six points and Toronto was out-scored by nearly a 3:1 margin.

That’s not all. Phaneuf has historically played the toughest available minutes. This year, Leafs coach Mike Babcock has used 21-year-old Morgan Rielly and journeyman Matt Hunwick in that role; despite Rielly’s obviously exceptional quality, the pairing has been getting lit up. That allowed Gardiner and Phaneuf to take on less impressive opponents.

Analyst Micah Blake McCurdy put that shelter into chart form, showing that Phaneuf had played against far fewer first-line opponents than the average NHL player this season:

Today, that strategy paid off for the Leafs. They managed to dump a 30-year-old who is already overpaid and whose contract will become increasingly onerous as his skills fade with age. That’s remarkable in itself; more remarkable still is that the Leafs managed to do it without taking on any bad long-term deals in exchange and without retaining any money on Phaneuf’s contract.

Ottawa did manage to dump three ugly contracts on Toronto, but the important thing is that none of those deals involve a long-term commitment. All will be off Toronto’s books by the end of next season, if not sooner via trade or buyout:

Contract commitments Toronto took on
Player Age Stats Line Cap Hit Expiry
Jared Cowen 25 37GP, 0G-4A-4PTS $3,100,000 2017, RFA
Colin Greening 29 1GP, 0G-0A-0PTS $2,650,000 2017, UFA
Milan Michalek 31 32GP, 6G-4A-10PTS $4,000,000 2017, UFA

NHLNumbers.com, NHL.com

Colin Greening has been buried in the AHL for most of the year, where he has 13 points in 41 games; he has negative value. So does Milan Michalek, though he had 34 points in 66 games just last year, so there’s at least some small hope he can find his game.

Superficially, Jared Cowen is young enough to improve, but he’s been so bad for so long that his actual value is more likely going to come via buyout. TSN’s Frank Seravalli explains the financial upside to buying out Cowen for a team near the salary cap:

Cowen’s buyout would represent just the fourth salary-cap credit since the cap was instituted in 2005—and by far the most valuable … a team would spend $750,000 in real dollars for each of the next two seasons, in exchange for a $650,000 credit in 2016-17 and a $750,000 hit in 2017-18. Considering we already know the salary cap won’t rise much (if at all) for next season, we’ve seen teams spend a lot more money in retained transactions in exchange for less salary cap flexibility than Cowen would provide.

Cowen may then have some value, though likely not a lot.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images
Tobias Lindberg

The real return was in futures. Toronto added a second-round draft pick, which is always a nice thing to have, and also brought in prospect Tobias Lindberg, a big forward who is scoring pretty well as a 20-year-old AHL rookie this year and opened eyes with a strong OHL performance last season.

The value of those futures is decidedly secondary compared to the coup of dumping Phaneuf’s bloated contract, but the Leafs also managed to do some housecleaning in this trade, sweeping away some names from their 50-man reserve list.

Casey Bailey is a 24-year-old forward and is scoring at less than a 0.5 points-per-game pace in the AHL; he’s a long-shot prospect. Ryan Rupert could still rebound at age 21, but he’s spent time in the ECHL both this season and last year and is more suspect than prospect. Matt Frattin has degenerated from NHLer to good AHLer to unremarkable AHLer and is on a one-way deal.

Of the four players going to Ottawa with Phaneuf, the only real loss is 19-year-old Cody Donaghey, but given that Donaghey was signed after going undrafted in 2014 and 2015, it’s hard to categorize that loss as being overly significant.

The Leafs did incredibly well here. Phaneuf is 30 years old and isn’t worth his $7.0 million cap hit in the here and now; the difference between what he’s paid and his actual annual value is only going to increase with each passing year as his skills decline with age.

Ottawa has taken on the worst kind of contract, and not only did it fail to significantly penalize the Leafs for the favour, but the Sens went so far as to give Toronto some legitimate futures in exchange.

The managers and coaching staff of the Maple Leafs deserve full marks for so effectively pulling the wool over their rival’s eyes.

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com, BehindtheNet.ca and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com. Salary-cap information via NHL Numbers.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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