It would’ve been hard to imagine the Toronto Maple Leafs battling for a playoff spot just one year ago, when team captain Dion Phaneuf was dealt to the Ottawa Senators, but it is clear on the first anniversary of the nine-player deal that it was an important step to move the 31-year-old blueliner out to facilitate the rebuild of the club.
The deal came while Toronto was wallowing near the bottom of the NHL standings with a roster of hole-plugging veterans on short-term contracts who were waiting to be shipped out at the trade deadline.
Phaneuf was a player in the midst of his prime on a club that was years away from being good, and his presence may have provided a road block to bottoming out and having the best chance to draft Auston Matthews.
More importantly, it is clear on the first anniversary of the nine-player deal that it was necessary to transition from the group associated with losing Game 7 in Boston, the 18-wheeler going over the cliff, Salute-gate and the dysfunction symptomatic of the Burke/Nonis era to a group of youngsters that the fan base could be optimistic about.
Toronto’s management made miscalculations when it came to Phaneuf, assuming that he would grow into a #1 defenseman, but the only aspect of Phaneuf that resembled a top blueliner was his $7 Million salary, which makes it even more of a feat that Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello was able to deal him without retaining any salary on the remaining five years of his contract.
“(Clearing Phaneuf’s salary) gives us the opportunity to do things, but it also gives us the opportunity when some of our younger players are coming at the end of their entry-level contracts who we have high expectations for to sign them.” Lamoriello said last February.
Toronto absorbed all of the financial pain in one season, taking on the salaries of Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and Jared Cowen (bought out last summer) totaling $9.75 Million (which will all be off the books after the season) and gave the Leafs the room to
sign Morgan Rielly to a six-year, $30 Million contract extension, along with minor leaguer Tobias Lindberg and a 2017 second rounder.
Phaneuf has fit in well with the Sens on the second pair with youngster Cody Ceci, but had he remained in Toronto, his declining skating ability would have made him a liability on the top pairing.
The Leafs task over the next few seasons is to find a young top defenseman or two who can adequately fill the hole left by their former captain.
UPDATE - Nikita Soshnikov is a late scratch with an upper body injury, Josh Leivo is taking the pre-game skate and will replace Soshnikov in the lineup.
The Leafs played their third game in four nights against the St. Louis Blues at Air Canada Center on Thursday. The Blues defeated Toronto 5-1 in St. Louis last week, the first game for head coach Mike Yeo after Ken Hitchcock was fired.
Frederik Andersen will return between the pipes for Toronto after a 39-save win by backup Curtis McElhinney against Dallas on Tuesday, while Jake Allen will go in goal for the Blues.
Former Leaf Carl Gunnarsson replaces Robert Bortuzzo in the St. Louis lineup, while Mike Babcock will go with the same lineup that defeated the Stars 3-1 on Tuesday.