Phaneuf may be first of many Senators heading out the door

Dion Phaneuf spoke about his time in Ottawa and the memorable playoff push they had last season, and his excitement to join a team that has won the Stanley Cup twice in recent years with the Los Angeles Kings. (Courtesy: SensTV)

The paring down has begun.

There’ll be more of that from the Ottawa Senators before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, and probably even beyond it.

What stood out most about the Tuesday night deal that sent Dion Phaneuf to the Los Angeles Kings is that no future assets came Ottawa’s way. This was about shedding contractual commitments, plain and simple, with the Senators set to save more than $5-million in actual dollars even while retaining 25 per cent of Phaneuf’s remaining salary and cap hit.

It could end up being even more than that depending on Marian Gaborik’s future with the Sens.

Like Phaneuf, he has three years remaining on his contract beyond this one – years that could potentially be bought out or not played because of injury or retirement

The Senators have adopted a plan of turning useful players into future assets amid a disastrous season. In extending the contract of general manager Pierre Dorion by three years last Friday, owner Eugene Melnyk said in a statement that it “reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development.”

But the Phaneuf deal was not of that mold – not when you consider that Ottawa swapped out one of its top-four defenceman for an oft-injured, 35-year-old winger in Gaborik, while also sending veteran centre Nate Thompson to Los Angeles and getting back Nick Shore.

Saving money is paramount for a team struggling to sell tickets. Melnyk told reporters in December that his $68-million payroll far exceeded the revenue base, and president and CEO Tom Anselmi recently became the latest business executive to part ways with the organization.

Fortunately for Dorion, cost-cutting will be a natural byproduct of other moves made before the deadline. If he parts ways with any of Zach Smith, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Derick Brassard, Cody Ceci or Mike Hoffman – each is available at the right price – it will almost certainly net him a combination of picks, prospects or younger players in return.

The Sens GM is not believed to be entertaining any offers on superstar Erik Karlsson at this time. But you have to wonder how these last few months might affect future talks with the captain, who is due to become an unrestricted free agent in July 2019.

Karlsson referred to Phaneuf as his “dearest friend” in a tweet on Tuesday night and has watched a team that he carried to within one goal of the Stanley Cup final last May crumble around him. It’s likely going to get worse in the next 12 days, with Melnyk mentioning that Ottawa was willing to tolerate “pain” in the name of building up a stronger foundation.

Phaneuf spent two years and four days as a member of the Senators – arriving in a Feb. 9, 2016 trade with Toronto that allowed them to dump the cumbersome contracts of Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and Jared Cowen for a net cash savings.

It is under similar circumstances that the recent first-time father now finds himself heading to his fourth NHL team (although it’s a move Phaneuf finds amenable since he and wife, Elisha Cuthbert, already keep a home in Southern California because of her work as an actress).

Despite getting caught in the spin-cycle of the business of hockey, Phaneuf is grateful for his time in the nation’s capital. It game him his first extended Stanley Cup playoff run last spring and was a city he genuinely enjoyed calling home.

The veteran defenceman long sensed a change was coming with the Senators hovering near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, and appeared wistful last month after a game at the Air Canada Centre when he told Sportsnet: “I’ve got to play on both sides of the Battle of Ontario. What a great thing to say.”

Phaneuf declined to waive his no-movement clause and allow the Senators to expose him in June’s expansion draft, and the team wound up losing Marc Methot to the Vegas Golden Knights instead. The losses have been piling up on several fronts in Ottawa ever since.

The Senators have other pieces to sell as they look to chart a course back to respectability — not to mention a few worth keeping, too: Karlsson, Mark Stone, Thomas Chabot and Matt Duchene.

The path immediately ahead involves getting younger and cheaper. Dorion and Melnyk discussed a longer-term vision during two days of meetings in Barbados last week and Phaneuf clearly wasn’t part of it.

It shouldn’t be long before others follow him out the door.

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