Looking back at the Phaneuf trade

Published Dec. 16, 2010 12:00 a.m. ET

Since the Maple Leafs and Flames consummated one of last season’s most notable NHL trades — one that sent Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie to Toronto and Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers to Calgary — there’s been no shortage of debate as to who won the deal.

The standard answer to any discussion on the winner and loser of a trade is that it takes longer than 12 months to determine which GM made out like a bandit and which one should report to their local police constabulary to register as a robbery victim.

(In a predictably hilarious aside, both Brian Burke and Darryl Sutter are on record as saying they would make the same trade today; nice to hear, but what do we expect them to say — ‘Damn, I really bunged up that sucker’?)

But in the case of that Phaneuf/Stajan swap, the standard answer doesn’t apply. The verdict is in — and Toronto GM Brian Burke is the clear victor over his Calgary counterpart Darryl Sutter.

To be honest, the Leafs winning this deal was the initial reaction of many, if not most people, inside and outside the NHL community. But the past 11 months have shown just how badly Sutter panicked when he pulled the trigger.

Forget about Mayers, a throw-in to the trade who had next to no impact during his stint with his hometown Leafs (and who left Calgary in the offseason to sign with San Jose). That makes it a three-for-three transaction. And since White was dealt to Carolina in November for D-man Anton Babchuk, let’s call it Phaneuf, Sjostrom and Aulie for Stajan, Hagman and Babchuk.

In essence, Toronto acquired (a) two hulking defensemen with the prime of their careers still ahead of them; and (b) an effective penalty-killing worker bee. Calgary acquired (a) a center who continues to labor under the weight of a top-six forward label (and who has been a healthy scratch for the past two games); (b) a winger who, while capable of scoring, struggles through goal droughts with frustrating regularity; and (c) a blueliner who has been on the right side of the plus/minus ledger just once in his four-year NHL career (and who has amassed more than 14 points in only one of those four years).


Does that sound like a deal where, as the cliché goes, both sides benefit? Not to me, it doesn’t. It sounds like the type of steal that resonates for decades in both cities, the way the infamous Doug-Gilmour (and others)-for-Gary Leeman (and others) trade still haunts Calgarians to this day.

Now, defenders of the Flames would try and counter this argument by noting Phaneuf is wildly overpaid for what he has been able to deliver in Toronto. While that’s a fair point, Sutter made it moot when he inexplicably signed Stajan to a four-year, $14-million contract in March. It was an unnecessary doubling-down on Sutter’s behalf — and the pressure put on Stajan by his salary cap value has made his lack of production this season (one goal in 25 games and just four in 52 games in a Flames uniform) all the more painful.

Like Stajan, Phaneuf has a contract that will last three more years after this season — and at a much higher cap hit ($6.5 million per year).

However, the difference is that Burke has enough cap flexibility in the coming years — $20 million in space next season and $36 million in 2012-13 — to engage in that calculated gamble. Sutter, on the other hand, has only $3 million in cap space next year and has committed $34.3 million to just seven players for the ’12-13 campaign.

Ridding the Flames of Phaneuf’s contract only made sense if Sutter was wise in re-distributing the money that was saved in the deal. But Sutter was not wise in that regard. The trade was a crystal clear case of him cutting off his nose to spite his face — and instead of listening to the outcry that followed the cutting, Sutter caressed the lopped-off schnozz like a Faberge Egg and now holds it high over his head with a perverse sense of pride.

There will be a standard answer in the coming years as to who won this deal: Toronto. And, as with the Gilmour/Leeman trade, there will be a standard reply to those who’ll continue to suggest it’s not that simple and that Calgary got something of real value out of it:


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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.

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