Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs brain trust took on one of the most difficult jobs in hockey in 2014: turn around one of the most iconic franchises and build a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
The Leafs have the longest championship drought in the NHL at 48 years. They’ve had several good teams in that span, most notably in 1992-93, but rebuilds have become all too common in “the center of the hockey universe.”
Shanahan and Co. have made several quality roster moves since taking over. Trading David Clarkson’s horrendous contract without having to retain any salary was a minor miracle.
They made another great trade Tuesday by sending defenseman Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators in a nine-player deal. The Leafs acquired defenseman Jared Cowen, forwards Colin Greening, Milan Michalek, prospect Tobias Lindberg and a 2017 second-round draft pick. The Senators acquired Phaneuf, forwards Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and defenseman Cody Donaghey.
This move has fantastic financial implications for the Leafs. They eat some bad contracts in the short term and gain long-term salary cap flexibility that can be used to re-sign their own free agents, pursue unrestricted free agents (Steven Stamkos?) and make trades.
Even if the Leafs wait until the summer of 2017 to add a superstar player, moving Phaneuf’s salary off the books allows them to re-sign young players who figure to be part of the team’s future. This list includes defenseman Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft, and underrated center Nazem Kadri, who’s an RFA in July and due a raise from his $4.1 million salary in 2015-16.
Toronto now has $23 million committed to just five players for the 2017-18 campaign, which gives Shanahan all kinds of options moving forward.
The cap flexibility for Toronto makes the deal worth it alone, but when you add a second-round pick from Ottawa, which could be a high selection, and a good prospect in Lindberg, the deal looks even more favorable for the Leafs.
Lindberg scored 32 goals and helped the OHL’s Oshawa Generals win the Memorial Cup last season.
Toronto is slowly building a roster capable of contending long-term. There are some good young players already on the NHL roster, and there will be more from the AHL and junior ranks coming soon. The Leafs also have a chance to win the draft lottery and be in a position to select top prospect Auston Matthews.
A lot of salary cap space is a good thing, but it must be spent on the right players. This front office has to be able to persuade the best players, particularly those from Greater Toronto Area, to come home and take on the immense pressure from the fans and media. That’s been an issue in the past.
Regardless, the Leafs are in much better shape than they were a year or two ago. The future is bright and the team, at least to this point, hasn’t tried to cut corners and accelerate the rebuild with risky moves.
Thumbnail photo via Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports Images. Salary information via General Fanager.
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