TORONTO — For the Ottawa Senators the help comes now, for the Toronto Maple Leafs it comes later.
A mammoth nine-player swap between Ontario rivals Tuesday saw Leafs captain, and former Red Deer Rebel, Dion Phaneuf land in the nation’s capital in a trade that props up a mostly inexperienced Ottawa defence while shedding Toronto of another core player and his long-term contract, one that carries a US$7-million annual salary-cap hit and expires in 2021.
“I think both parties ended up where they want to be at this moment,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray said of the trade. “We’ll see now how it works out.”
Phaneuf, at the very least, upgrades the Senators’ back end as they race to catch up in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The 30-year-old instantly adds experience, penalty-killing acumen and some offensive capability to an Erik Karlsson-led group that features four defenders with less than 300 games of NHL experience.
Phaneuf recently played his 800th career NHL game, a total that far surpasses any of his new teammates on defence.
Murray had been looking for a left-shooting defenceman to play on one of his top two pairs, a hole that Phaneuf immediately fills. He’s expected to play alongside 22-year-old Cody Ceci when the Senators visit the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night.
“He’ll just bring, we hope, a presence to this organization,” said Murray. “We don’t expect him to come in here to be a saviour. We expect him to come here and just be the hockey player he is.”
Phaneuf was enjoying one of his better seasons as a Leaf, a redemptive one in many ways following a challenging 2014-15 season which saw him finish with just 29 points. The Leafs, in a likely attempt to prop him up for just such a trade, were employing their captain in less strenuous duties under new head coach Mike Babcock. Phaneuf was no longer matched up against top lines, killing fewer penalties and getting more looks in the offensive zone.
On pace for nearly 40 points and averaging 22 minutes per game, Phaneuf will get a fresh start with his third NHL team, all of them Canadian.
“Dion’s ready now to win and we’re not ready to win,” Babcock said. “It was a hard decsion. I think it’s a good decision for Dion.”
Beyond the injected experience, the Senators have to hope that Phaneuf helps them defensively. They surrender a league-high of more than 33 shots per game and yield more than three goals nightly, the third-worst mark in the league.
Murray said he hoped the trade would help Ottawa contend for the playoffs not only this spring, but beyond.
“At the end of the day we’re in a business that is about winning and all I’m trying to do is help the Ottawa Senators be a winner,” he said.
Ottawa sits four points back of the New York Islanders for the final wild card spot in the East.
The trade ends Phaneuf’s turbulent run in Toronto, which began with a similar blockbuster swap six years ago, one that sent the former first-round pick to the Leafs from the Calgary Flames.
Phaneuf had been Toronto’s captain since the summer of 2010, a period during which the club qualified for the post-season only once.
The key to the deal for the Leafs was cap flexibility. Toronto is trying to clear its deck of long-term pieces that don’t fit for the future as it aggressively rebuilds through a revamped system of draft and development.
Phaneuf was in the second year of a seven-season pact worth $49 million, inked by a previous management regime on Dec. 31, 2013.
He’s the second core player with a long-term contract to be unloaded by the Leafs’ relatively new leadership group steered by team president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello. The Leafs started seriously deconstructing that core roster last summer when Phil Kessel was dealt to Pittsburgh for a package of prospects and draft picks.
Unlike the Kessel deal, which saw the Leafs retain $1.2 million annually until 2022, the Leafs kept no salary in the Phaneuf transaction.