Brian Burke made the blockbuster trade that will define his time as the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager by gambling that defenceman Dion Phaneuf will regain the form that made him a contender for both the Calder and Norris trophies in his first two years in the NHL.
Given that Phaneuf is all of 24 and in his fifth NHL season, it is a reasonable gamble even if Burke did surrender most of the Leafs' meagre offence by the time he was done trading yesterday. For he not only gave the Leafs defence a shot in the arm, he shored up the goaltending by getting Jean-Sébastien Giguère from the Anaheim Ducks and managed to shed a couple of expensive contracts plus a boatload of pending free agents.
Burke received Phaneuf, forward Fredrik Sjostrom and defence prospect Keith Aulie from the Calgary Flames for forwards Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers and defenceman Ian White. Hagman is the only player Burke surrendered who will not become a free agent July 1, although White is a restricted free agent and will probably stay in Calgary.
Shortly after that trade was finished, Burke went to his former employer and received Giguère in exchange for winger Jason Blake and goaltender Vesa Toskala.
Blake has two years left on his contract after this season at $4-million (all currency U.S.) per year, quite a stipend for a player who scored all of 50 goals in 216 games as a Maple Leaf. Toskala will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
All told, Burke got rid of a total of $14.93-million in contracts against this season's cap and brought in $13.25-million, a saving of $1.68-million.
The Leafs are right around the $56.8-million cap right now and may have to trim around $600,000 before the end of the season depending on injuries and any other player moves.
Burke tried to send defenceman Jeff Finger, who has two years left on his contract at $3.5-million per year, to the Ducks instead of Blake. But Bob Murray, who succeeded Burke as the Ducks' GM, insisted on Blake, who has 10 goals in 55 games.
Murray was willing to take Blake because in the last two years of his contract his total salary is $2-million less than his total cap hit of $8-million, which matters more to the budget-conscious Ducks.
"This guy is a warrior, he's got a cannon for a shot and he plays the game hard," Burke said of Phaneuf, whom he was pursuing for months. "This is the most important - I want guys who play the game hard. He's a big open-ice hitter and he's a quality person. It's an important day for us to add these three pieces. Obviously, the centrepiece is Dion Phaneuf. We're thrilled to have him."
Flames GM Darryl Sutter, who loudly insisted for weeks that he was not trying to trade Phaneuf, made the deal because Phaneuf played himself out of favour in Calgary when his offence tailed off from 60 points in 2007-8 to 22 points in 55 games this season. But both Burke and Leafs head coach Ron Wilson think Phaneuf can get back on the superstar track that was predicted for the Edmonton native when he was drafted.
The initial reaction around the NHL was in agreement. One NHL GM said the Leafs received "an A-list" player in Phaneuf. An NHL scout said the 6-foot-6, Aulie, 20, who will report to the Leafs' Toronto Marlies farm team, will play a dozen years in the NHL.
Wilson was practically giddy when he discussed the prospects of having the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Phaneuf on defence, especially since Mike Komisarek's shoulder injury is proving to be more stubborn than expected. Komisarek was supposed to be ready to play in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks but he will now be out for at least another five days.
"I know [Phaneuf]is just going to add an element to our defence the Leafs have lacked for a long time, a big dominant presence at both ends," Wilson said. "He fits that aggressive role [Burke]and I like.
"Yes, offensively we took a step back but physically we added that dimension everybody has to prepare for. I know what you have to prepare for - geez, keep your head up when Phaneuf is on the ice."
Wilson did say he thinks Phaneuf "might shoot the puck too much" but was obviously happy about the prospect. "There's going to be collateral damage. He might shoot legs off. Heads, too. There hasn't been as much shooting as I'd like to see," the coach said.
Burke, who reunited Giguère with Leafs goaltending coach François Allaire, said both the goaltender and Phaneuf will bring an improved work ethic to the Leafs. He also said this does not change the Leafs' plans for rookie goaltender Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson, 25, who has struggled with consistency.
Giguère, 32, has one year left on his contract at $6-million while Gustavsson is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1. He is expected to sign again with the Leafs.
"[Giguère]will serve as a mentor for The Monster," Burke said. "For our guys, to look at this guy, who has a [Stanley Cup]ring, and how hard he works, it will be a good thing.
"This doesn't change anything for [Gustavsson] But we needed to shore up our goaltending."
Aside from scoring, the biggest problem for the Leafs this season was goaltending. It was hoped Toskala could provide decent work in the last year of his contract while Gustavsson adjusted to the North American game after arriving from Sweden. But Toskala was awful from the start and Gustavsson showed only flashes of the talent that made Burke pursue him hard last spring.
The Leafs gave up their leading goal-scorer in Hagman (20), while Stajan was second in points on the team with 15 goals and 38 points. White, 25, quietly worked his way into the top four on defence this season and departs with more points (26) than Phaneuf.
But at the same time, if Giguère can provide the type of goaltending that led the Ducks to the 2007 Stanley Cup, the Leafs might be able to win a few games without having to score at least four goals. That is not a given, though, as Giguère lost the Ducks' No..1 job to Jonas Hiller, who signed a long-term contract last Friday.
The trade was a big disappointment to Stajan, 26, who grew up as a Leafs fan in nearby Mississauga and was drafted by them in 2002.
"Yeah, that's the one thing that will always bug me," he said. "I grew up as a Leaf fan in this city. It's disappointing never to be able to put it together.
"But [White]is probably my best buddy on the team, so it's a bonus to be going together to Calgary. It's exciting to get back to playoff hockey."
Blake was a major disappointment since he signed as a free agent with the Leafs after scoring 40 goals for the New York Islanders in 2006-07. He said his five-year, $20-million contract made him one of the scapegoats for the Leafs' failures. He also said it is hard for the players to concentrate on hockey in the midst of so much media scrutiny in Toronto.
"It's tough to come to the rink when you're not winning, especially in this atmosphere," he said, referring to the malaise that infects the Leafs dressing room. "I'll be honest with you guys. When things aren't going well, it's stressful. There is a lot of pressure here and the stress can get to you."