TORONTO — Dion Phaneuf is trading sides in the Battle of the Ontario.
A mammoth nine-player swap between the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs saw Phaneuf landing in the nation’s capital, ending a turbulent run in Toronto that began with a similar blockbuster trade six years ago.
Phaneuf, the Maple Leafs captain since the summer of 2010, improves a mostly inexperienced Ottawa defence while Toronto sheds another core piece and long-term contract — one that carries an US$7 million annual cap hit and expires in 2021.
“We don’t expect him to come in here to be a saviour,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray said. “We expect him to come here and just be the hockey player he is.”
The dismantling of Toronto’s core started last summer, when the team traded Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh for a package of prospects and draft picks.
Unlike the Kessel deal, which saw the Leafs retain US$1.2 million annually until 2022, the Leafs kept no salary in the Phaneuf transaction. That’s a key aspect to the trade for Toronto, which is rebuilding under the leadership of president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock.
“This was a transaction that certainly wasn’t for today,” Lamoriello said.
Phaneuf was enjoying perhaps his finest season as a Leaf, a redemptive one in many ways following a challenging 2014-15 season. Under Babcock, the 30-year-old was playing on the second defensive pair for the Leafs, no longer matched up against top lines, while getting more looks in the offensive zone.
He was on pace for nearly 40 points and averaging 22 minutes per game.
“He’s a real good person. (He) competes, he wants to win,” Murray said. “He’s been in a tough environment. He’s been judged very tough in the environment he’s in.”
Murray said he had no qualms about dealing with the archrival Maple Leafs.
“It helps them, it helps us, those are good deals,” he said.
“We’ll battle them on the ice, they’ll battle us on the ice … but 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.”
The 30-year-old should add experience, penalty killing acumen and some offensive capability to a Senators squad that’s spearheaded by team captain Erik Karlsson, who leads the team with 59 points. The Senators defence features four players with less than 300 games of NHL experience, notably a 22-year-old Cody Ceci and 25-year-old Patrick Wiercoch.
Murray said it was a priority for the club to add a left-shooting defender to their top four grouping on the back-end.
Phaneuf joins the Senators almost six years to the day from a Jan. 31 2010 trade to Toronto, one that saw the Leafs send four players to Calgary in exchange for their future captain.
Whether his addition will be enough to catapult the Senators into the playoffs remains in question. Ottawa is four points back of the New York Islanders for the final wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re in a business that is about winning and all I’m trying to do is help the Ottawa Senators be a winner,” Murray said.
In addition to salary cap relief, the Leafs added a former first round pick in defender Jared Cowen, struggling 31-year-old winger Milan Michalek, two youngish forward prospects in Colin Greening and Tobias Lindberg, as well as second-round draft pick in 2017.
Ottawa also received AHL forwards Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and junior defenceman Cody Donaghey.