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One year ago today the Leafs changed their future

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The biggest trade of the season last year will ultimately leave the Leafs with less than they had before, which is what makes it the best move they’ve made so far.

Calgary Flames v Ottawa Senators Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

It was one year ago today, on February 9, 2016, that Leafs General Manager Lou Lamoriello did what many, if not most, Leafs fans had thought impossible: trade Dion Phaneuf with no salary retained.

Moving Phil Kessel, described as the day the rebuild began by Elseldo, netted the Leafs a lot of assets that will become part of their future. The spinoffs of that trade included Kasperi Kapanen, Kerby Rychel and Frederik Andersen. That trade and all the other changes of that summer were about closing a door on the past and beginning anew.

The Phaneuf trade was different. The Phaneuf trade was a modern cap-era trade about contracts, and was designed to clean up one of the worst decisions the old Leafs had made. The David Clarkson trade half-fixed the worst one, but this trade was a masterpiece. It made the future possible.

The Trade in Hindsight

Ottawa acquired:

Dion Phaneuf
Matt Frattin
Casey Bailey
Ryan Rupert
Cody Donaghey

Phaneuf has been a decent, if not spectacular, addition to a blueline that needed help. The Senators are in a solid playoff position right now, and he is a part of that success.

Matt Frattin is gone from the organization.

Casey Bailey went to the AHL all-star game and is one of Binghamton’s better players, but at 25 seems unlikely to suddenly become an NHL player of note.

Ryan Rupert spends most of his time in the ECHL, and Cody Donaghey is still in junior hockey.

Ottawa’s big gain was taking three bad salary decisions, amounting to $9.75 million in cap hit this season, and distilling them down into one overpaid player who can at least fill a roster spot.

At the time of the trade, it was clearly reported that Phaneuf had not waived his no-movement clause. However, there is no requirement in the CBA for a team to honour those clauses after a trade, and generally if they have been waived, teams don’t re-instate them. It has turned out that Ottawa did assume Phaneuf’s no-movement clause which means he must be protected in the expansion draft.

His contract will have to be dealt with in the future by Ottawa, but until it becomes a problem for them, they can just play him. The eventual buyout or salary dump trade of one player won’t be that painful.

Toronto acquired:

Jared Cowen
Colin Greening
Milan Michalek
Tobias Lindberg
Ottawa’s second-round pick in the 2017 draft.

Toronto owes Anaheim a second round pick as part of the Andersen trade, so the one they give may end up being this one.

Tobias Lindberg is a serviceable if unexciting AHL winger. He looked like a potential NHL depth player in his very brief stint on the Leafs last season, but his AHL play has not shown a lot of growth. He is currently out with an injury as well. He turns 22 this summer, so he has time yet to develop into the power winger he seems like he should be. But for right now, he’s being masterfully outplayed on the Marlies by Colin Greening. Lindberg is still under contract next year.

Greening, who was the least overpaid of Ottawa’s three big mistakes, has been the Marlies saviour at times this season. He is a good enough centre to take the third or fourth line spot when needed, and he plays with verve and power in any position. He has more points per game than any regular depth player, sitting just behind Lindberg who gets more minutes with the top scoring lines.

Greening is a UFA this summer, and if he has hopes of an NHL future, he may need to go elsewhere. It is not impossible that a team looking for depth may trade for him this season at the deadline, but it is not very likely.

Milan Michalek, one of two four million dollar men on the Marlies, has played only 16 games, seems to be frequently injured, but does play an effective, hard-hitting depth role when he is on the roster. At 32, he seems like he should still have value in the NHL as a depth player on a reasonable contract, but given his injury history, he might have a very hard time finding anyone interested when his unreasonable one runs out. He is UFA this summer and will likely play or sit on the Marlies through the rest of the season unless he gets healthy just when the Leafs are not.

Jared Cowen was finally bought out after a tortuous process that no one needs to revisit. He is a UFA right now. At 26, he is the youngest UFA for this summer—some more will join him when new free agents appear as teams choose not to offer RFAs qualifying offers. The buyout will add $750,000 to the Leafs cap hit next year, and then he is gone forever.

Cowen had one successful year in his hockey career so far, his overage year in junior. He is very unlikely to ever hit an NHL roster again unless he gets a job in a lower league first and really lights things up.

The Trade in Foresight

By this time next year, the take from the Phaneuf trade may well be Tobias Lindberg and whatever that second round pick turns into.

But, on July 1, $6.650 million in cap hit vanishes, in addition to the amount taken off from the Cowen buyout during this season.

The Kessel trade began the rebuild, started the tear down of the old team, and ultimately brought the Leafs Auston Matthews. The Phaneuf trade paved the way for the future acquisition of good players. Without this deal, the only way to have facilitated the build phase of the rebuild would have been a very expensive buyout that would have limited the team for years.

For the 2017-2018 season, the Leafs are committed to 18 roster players (almost all of the current core of the team), 29 SPCs and $53,795,834 in cap hit. They have just under 20 million in cap space before the LTIR on Nathan Horton comes into play.

The single biggest chunk of that 20 million in space was created one year ago today. Cheers, Lou!

Acknowledgements

Cap Friendly for all the facts and figures. Their salary cap projection for next year includes buyouts and retained salary, but does not include potential bonuses earned in the season or overages from this season.