We all remember the day we heard the news. I was in my car on my way to Chapters listening to sports radio when I first heard. Within minutes I received a flurry of text messages from friends who were eager to share the news. Who was heading out didn't much matter at the time. We knew it wouldn't be Kessel or Schenn and anyone else was completely expendable.
As near as I can tell, the move was met with near unanimous approval among Leaf fans - which is no small feat.
As time has gone by, the shine has started to come off. The Leafs' record has improved since the deal but Phaneuf's cap hit of $6.5M is well above the standard of play he's provided the team thus far which has left many Leaf fans wondering if the deal should have been made in the first place.
The way I see it, there are two things that matter in any deal in a cap world - dollars and talent.
Even the most fervent Phaneuf haters would be likely to concede that Phaneuf, all else equal, is the best player in that deal while even the most ardent Phaneuf apologists would have to concede that he makes more money than he's worth.
Given these two assertions, how do we evaluate the deal?
Cap space only has value insofar as it allows you to acquire or retain talent. As far as retention is concerned, the Leafs have Bozak, Schenn, Gunnarsson, Caputi and MacArthur who will be RFAs at season's end and didn't lose any meaningful pieces last offseason as a consequence of cap management.
As Giguere and Kaberle's large contracts come off the books, the Leafs will have $20.6M in cap space to distribute to these players, as well as Kaberle and Giguere themselves should the Leafs decide to keep them. This really shouldn't be a problem, unless Kaberle prices himself off the team, in which case he would be making more money than I would be willing to pay him anyway.
The UFA market last offseason was one of the worst ever if your team was looking to acquire forwards. Kovalchuk was the only true game-changer available and we've all seen how he's changed the game for New Jersey thus far.
This offseason doesn't appear to be much better as big names like Joe Thornton, Marty St.Louis and Mikko Koivu have re-signed with their teams, leaving only Brad Richards and Alex Semin as true blue chip players upfront. Having lost out on Kovalchuk this offseason, I can't imagine that Alex Semin would wind up anywhere other than LA. He'll skate on Kopitar's wing and they'll make beautiful, goal-scoring music together.
So we may potentially lose out on a player like Brad Richards, or conversely, may be unable to re-sign Kaberle, Giguere, Bozak and MacArthur, but land Richards. Either way, I'm not resting my forehead on my desk in frustration over the Phaneuf contract over either of those outcomes. If Richards wants reasonable money and sees Toronto as a premiere destination as he suggested in the National Post this week, then Burke will be able to make it happen.
Ultimately, for this deal to be considered a coup for Brian Burke, Phaneuf will have to re-discover some of his Norris Nominee form. Does he have to put up 60 points? No. He will have to improve his play on the powerplay significantly, something that he'll have an opportunity to do with the new forward units that Ron Wilson has put together.
Phaneuf has the physical tools to do the job as his physical strength and powerful shot are on par with those possessed by Shea Weber. Where Phaneuf needs to improve is his decision-making. If he can get this right, then we win the deal, hands down.
The trade that brought Dion Phaneuf to Toronto is a no-lose move (over at least the first two and a half seasons) and it has potential to pay big dividends for this team if he can get his game back offensively.
Forget the dollars. For now, it's all about talent.