The NHL trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 29, but that didn’t stop the Toronto Maple Leafs from pulling the trigger on a huge deal this week. The Leafs rebuild is in full effect, and the Toronto braintrust led by Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello stepped on the gas pedal by dealing captain Dion Phaneuf to hated provincial rivals Ottawa in a massive nine-player trade.
Despite the sheer size of the trade, the other names really don’t matter. The big plus for Toronto is that the Senators took on the remaining five years of Phaneuf’s contract, which averages $7 million per year. That’s big money for a 30-year-old d-man who’s lost a step. While still a decent blueliner, he hasn’t been a top-line defenseman since his years in Calgary. This season, new coach Mike Babcock wisely did what his predecessors didn’t and took the pressure off Phaneuf by playing him on the second D pairing and thereby reducing his minutes. At the same time, Babcock and Lamoriello worked to pump up Phaneuf’s trade value by praising him in the press at every turn.
The trade in its entirety: Toronto sent Phaneuf and non-NHLers Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and Cody Donaghey to Ottawa for Jared Cowen, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Tobias Lindberg and the Sens’ second-round pick in 2017. Since Shanahan took over as president of the Leafs, the team has shed monster contracts given to David Clarkson, Phil Kessel and now Phaneuf. This clears the decks for Toronto to go after big-name free agents in the coming offseasons. The biggest name rumored to be a Toronto target is Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay. Whether the future free agent decides to enter the media maelstrom of Toronto is another story.
Another interesting side of the trade is a team trading its captain away. It certainly has happened many times before. Back in the ’90s, the Leafs traded two beloved captains. At the draft in June 1994, GM Cliff Fletcher made a gutsy move, dealing captain Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and the team’s first-round pick (#22) to Quebec for Mats Sundin, Todd Warriner, Garth Butcher and Quebec’s first-rounder (#10). Although it was extremely unpopular at the time—Clark had just come off a 46-goal season and embodied the grit and leadership that Toronto fans adored—Fletcher felt the team needed to shake things up and provide Doug Gilmour with some offensive support after two Conference finals appearances. Sundin was a budding young star playing in the shadow of Joe Sakic and went on to play 13 seasons in Toronto, eventually became captain himself; he’s the Leafs’ all-time leading scorer and is now in the Hall of Fame. After the Clark trade, Gilmour became captain, but a few years later in 1997 with the team struggling, he was dealt along with Dave Ellett to New Jersey for Steve Sullivan, Alyn McCauley and Jason Smith.
Some of the greatest players in NHL history were traded while they were captains: Wayne Gretzky was dealt twice, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jarome Iginla, Ron Francis and Brad Park. Sometimes trading your captain can fire up a team, sometimes it can devastate it, but more often than not, it’s strictly business.