Why Phaneuf trade will only help challenged Senators

Senators forward Clarke MacArthur discusses his excitement to be reunited with former Leafs teammate Dion Phaneuf, and what he'll bring to the Ottawa organization.

Well, at least one Canadian team is going for it.

While the Habs, Flames, Jets, Oilers and Canucks rub their foreheads raw over the possibility of doing something big to enhance their playoff chances, the Ottawa Senators actually did something substantial today, adding to the drama by doing it with the assistance of their provincial rivals from Toronto.

Whatever the Sens saw in 23 minutes from Dion Phaneuf on Saturday night while they were laying a whipping on the Maple Leafs obviously appealed to them, as three days later the 30-year-old defenceman is now part of Ottawa’s effort to make a second half charge for a Stanley Cup playoff berth, just as they did last year.

It’s a massive nine-player deal for Ottawa, one of the biggest in team history, right up there with the deal that sent Alexei Yashin to Long Island, Dany Heatley to San Jose, Jason Spezza to Dallas and brought Bobby Ryan in from Anaheim.

You’ll notice three of those aforementioned deals were about sending stars packing out of the nation’s capital. They all came with their own set of factors, but the reality is that Bryan Murray lives in the real world, and in that world he knows it’s a challenge for Ottawa to recruit established marquee players and keep them. They were able to do it with Ryan, but had to overpay him to do it.

Here, Murray landed a top four defenceman who is locked up at an annual cap hit of $7 million until 2021. With Chris Phillips likely finished, Jared Cowen stagnated and Cody Ceci still developing, the Sens had no other way to get the established defensive help they needed and have that player under control for another five years.

This is the NHL’s third worst defensive team, folks, and while Phaneuf isn’t the second coming of Rod Langway, he’s capable of logging heavy minutes, killing penalties and playing the power play. When you consider Dustin Byfuglien comes in at a $7.6 million cap hit for the next five years, the Phaneuf contract seems reasonable and Ottawa doesn’t have to worry about having to negotiate a new one for the forseeable future.

The Sens are a budget team, and as such, had lots of cap room to accommodate Phaneuf, plus they got rid of that irritating Colin Greening contract and Milan Michalek, whose $4 million deal was just a sad reminder of how little Ottawa got out of trading Heatley.

Phaneuf is better than what they had, and he’s the best/most established player in this trade, which to the old Sam Pollock way of looking at these things, means Ottawa won the deal. To get him, the Senators surrendered futures, including Cowen, a player they’d decided can’t play for them, a minor-league prospect in Tobias Lindberg and a second round pick in 2017.

Given that the Sens did marvellously in last year’s draft by scooping up four picks in the top 50 in defencemen Thomas Chabot, centre Colin White, winger Gabriel Gagne and centre Filip Chlapik, and given they like Matt Puempel, Nick Paul and Shane Prince as prospects better than Lindberg, they were well positioned to make this kind of deal.

The only way it comes back to bite them is if Cowen or Lindberg turn out to be elite players, which seems a stretch. Otherwise, this trade can only help.

See, while a deal of this magnitude between Ottawa and Toronto seems highly unusual - can you imagine Calgary and Edmonton agreeing on a swap like this? - it really was a matter of two teams being aligned perfectly to do business, and not letting the inconvenient fact they are divisional rivals get in the way.

Ottawa wants to make the playoffs, and needed to get the kind of player, a top four defenceman, that isn’t readily available at any time, let alone at the trade deadline. Toronto isn’t going to make the playoffs, tried to move Phaneuf last year but couldn’t and is in the process of clearing its salary cap situation (they still have all kinds of dead money) to make progress in the future possible. The Leafs are dreaming of a team next year will include William Nylander and Mitch Marner, maybe Harvard prospect Jimmy Vesey if he declines to sign with Nashville, and maybe, just maybe, Steven Stamkos.

Phaneuf was a good soldier for the Leafs, and a class act despite the crap and nonsense he was surrounded with, but the Leafs saw their future more without him than with him. Unlike Leaf captains of the past, he wasn’t run out of town, which is nice. In fact, this deal was partly possible because they Leafs protected Phaneuf more this year and praised him at every turn.

Just last week, GM Lou Lamoriello said he had been an “unreal” help to the coaching staff this season.

He was never a particularly comfy fit as Leaf captain, and he won’t have to deal with that in Ottawa, which is Erik Karlsson’s team. He’ll just play his game, and it seems likely that away from the harsh scrutiny of Toronto, he may flourish even more than had he stayed a Leaf.

It does seem nearly unbelievable that the Leafs were able to move Phaneuf without retaining salary given what had happened with Phil Kessel and David Clarkson, but that’s just the way this deal lined up.

Which is why it got done.

Which is why the Sens may now be the most likely Canadian team to make the playoffs.