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Mirtle: Leafs, Sens at a crossroads with their captains

They're inevitably going to be lumped together all off-season, Dion Phaneuf and Jason Spezza, the captains of the NHL's two Ontario-based teams, both coming off disappointing seasons.

What put them in the news together over the weekend were renewed trade rumours, which are a mild surprise for Phaneuf and old news for Spezza.

These, however, are two different situations, save for one important similarity.

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As with most of the teams that missed the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are both seeking a shakeup.

But what they really need is some clarity about what they're trying to be.

That's been an issue for roughly the last decade for the Leafs. More than five years after former general manager Brian Burke pronounced he didn't want to be part of a five-year rebuild, no one seems to have an answer as to whether this team is working to contend now or years down the road, an essential question when it comes to Phaneuf.

How exactly would moving the team's top minute-eating defenceman put them further ahead in the near term, especially if the Leafs have to retain salary – for the next seven (!) years – in the deal?

While cap space is nice, there's little available to use it on in free agency to replace Phaneuf. And whatever return they get would likely be more of the futures variety, which is fine if a rebuild is the direction new president Brendan Shanahan and Co. intend to go.

In that case, the teardown will need to go well beyond Phaneuf, and dealing young players Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner – two other Leafs in the rumour mill of late – would make even less sense than the little it does already.

Whether Phaneuf stays or goes, Toronto's brass have to pick a path here instead of trying to dance in two directions, making changes for the sake of changes and signing veteran players to long-term deals months before contemplating moving and/or buying them out.

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They only need to look back over their recent franchise history to see where that leads.

The decision is much different in Ottawa. Spezza has only one year left on his deal, with a high cap hit but a low actual salary ($4-million) that should be appealing to a budget team looking to upgrade down the middle.

There's also a growing sentiment there far more than in Toronto that both sides are ready for a change, with Spezza creeping up on his 31st birthday and having played his entire career in the same fishbowl. He has been an uneasy fit in the captain's role after assuming it from Daniel Alfredsson, and Ottawa has plenty of young centres anxious for more ice time.

If you're placing bets, Spezza is much more likely to get a change of address in the coming months than Phaneuf.

Both players have become lightning rods in their markets – which is why the latest trade talk was everywhere within 24 hours after the initial report – and it's true they have their flaws. The Leafs have counted on Phaneuf to do far too much defensively and played a style that has hurt his numbers, while the Senators asked Spezza to be more than he was capable of, especially for a franchise down a leader and trying to get by on a budget.

But both players also have considerable value, and the challenge for the general managers here will be flipping them for something that fits with the bigger picture of what these teams want to be.

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If they even have an answer for just what that is.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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