With the Maple Leafs visiting Calgary this week for the first time since Dion Phaneuf donned the Blue and White, it seems an apt time to assess the success or failure of the blockbuster deal from both a Toronto and Calgary perspective.
A glance at the standings doesn’t flatter any of the parties involved: the Leafs are 13th in the East, spared the basement by the benighted New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils. The Flames have one more point than the Leafs (albeit in two extra games) and a superior goal differential (-8 vs. -21) but the ultra competitive nature of the Western Conference has them wallowing in the basement, 15th overall. Fans of both organizations have spent a lot of time fashioning effigies and gathering torches recently as a result.
For the Maple Leafs, the effect of the deal has been relatively muted: Phaneuf, while named the club’s latest captain, has spent a lot of time in the infirmary this year due to a deep cut on his leg. Besides the injury, he’s also suffered through the worst goal scoring dry spell of his entire career. In 39 games as a Leaf, Phaneuf has all of two goals on 130 shots for a ghastly 1.6% success rate. That’s poor for just about anyone not named David Hale, but it’s particularly bad for Phaneuf, who finished north of 7.0% in Calgary three separate times and had a career average better than 6.0% before the trade. He’s sometimes referred to as “high and wide” due to his penchant of firing head hunters from the point, but the truth is Phaneuf is an established weapon on the power play and at some point the puck is going to start going in at a much greater rate.
Until then, the Leafs and their fans will have to suffer through his infamous “chaos” defense style. During his time in Calgary Phaneuf’s greatest weakness was his lackluster decision making, particularly in his own end and at critical areas on the ice (either blueline, for example). A strong, physical player, Phaneuf always had the raw tools to dominate a hockey game, even as a younger player. He never made the leap from raw talent to polished defender in Flames colors and he still struggles to find the maturity and balance that would elevate him from a PP specialist to a legitimate top-two defenseman even now. It’s an open question whether he’ll ever take that next step at this point.
With Phaneuf’s offensive game lagging and defensive play stalled, his value as a $6.5 million player is rightfully being challenged in Toronto. Even if Phaneuf was excelling, however, the question of Brian Burke’s over-investment in the Leafs back-end would be a valid one. Toronto boasts one of the most expensive bluelines in the league with Mike Komisarek ($4.5 million), Tomas Kaberle ($4.25 million) Francois Beauchemin ($3.8 million), Luke Schenn ($2.95 million) and the aforementioned Phaneuf all taking home significant pay checks. With roughly $25 million in cap space sunk in the defense, the Leafs have precious little room cap left for their forwards. As a result, Toronto is 29th in the league in terms of percentage of cap space allocated to the front-end. Only the Islanders have less of their budget committed to their forward corps. That imbalance has proven to be a costly one for Toronto this year; with an average per game output of 2.17 goals, the Leafs have the 29th most potent offense in the league.
On the Flames side of the ledger, the Phaneuf deal continues to lose more and more of it’s luster. Ian White was retained by Darryl Sutter this off-season, but stumbled somewhat out of the gate and was recently dealt for plugger Tom Kostopolous and the cheaper but far more limited Anton Babchuk. Matt Stajan was also re-signed by Calgary this off-season to a three year, $3.5 million per year deal. The de facto number one center for the Flames since his acquisition, Stajan has been mostly underwhelming in that role. He has just 32 points in 52 games as a Flame, a mediocre total that is actually augmented by some favorable bounces this season (team high PDO = 103.5). In addition, while Stajan has always been a pass-first player in the NHL, his goal scoring has plunged into goon-like depths during his time with the Flames. He’s averaged slightly above a shot per game for Calgary in 2010-11 (28 shots in 24 games) and has just one goal through the first quarter of the season. Awarded a NTC in his new deal by Darryl Sutter (who hands them out like candy), Stajan found himself a healthy scratch in the Flames most recent game against the Anaheim Ducks*.
*Not that pricey press box players are a rarity in Calgary – Cory Sarich ($3.6 million) and Steve Staios ($2.7 million) have also spent a lot of time munching popcorn this year.
Niklas Hagman, the final piece of the deal, remains a regular contributor for Calgary, albeit largely in a supporting role. Hagman has just one point in his last five games and is on pace to finish with 36 points this season, a moderate step down from his last few 40+ point performances. Another $3 million…err…spent.
When the Phaneuf deal was consummated, there were some rumblings that at least part of the impetus for the swap from a Calgary perspective was some enduring “locker room issues” that were causing divisions and strife amongst the players. Whether that is true or not is only known by the players in question, but it’s obvious in retrospect that those conflicts weren’t really the cause of the Flames lackluster record.
On-ice, the rationale behind dealing Phaneuf was to shift cap dollars from the back-end to the front. With Calgary’s offense floundering last season and big money going to Phanuef, Jay Bouwmeester ($6.83 million), Robyn Regehr ($4.5 million) and Cory Sarich ($3.6 million), the 2009-10 Flames were unbalanced (ironically, like the current iteration of the Leafs). Sutter eschewed shopping Phaneuf for picks and prospects because his goal was simply pushing the club into the playoffs. The gamble didn’t pay off with the Flames missing the post-season and the returns seem to be shrinking in value as times passes. So while Sutter was successful in shifting some dollars from the back-end to the front, he failed to re-invest the dollars efficiently.
There’s plenty of time for things to change for one or both clubs going forward. That said, nearly a year out, the Phaneuf deal looks like a loser for both organizations.