This past week we saw two major transactions occur in the NHL. First, the Winnipeg Jets locked up defenseman Dustin Byfuglien on a 5-year $38 million dollar deal. Then stunningly the Toronto Maple Leafs traded their captain Dion Phaneuf to their division rivals the Ottawa Senators. Let’s break down each move.
Analyzing the Maple Leafs Trade and Other Big Moves
Phaneuf has been in many NHL rumors the past year plus. However, because of how many years were left on his contract with an annual cap hit of $7 million, it was not going to be easy for Toronto to find a trade partner. But Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello found a way to move Phaneuf without retaining any of his salary (which would have counted against the Leafs cap), like Toronto had to do in the Kessel deal with Pittsburgh. The Leafs did however have to take back both Jared Cowen and Milan Michalek in this trade. Both are signed through next season at a combined cap hit of $7.1 million. This is basically a wash versus Phaneuf’s contract over the next year plus.
At the end of the day the biggest asset the Leafs obtained was cap space. After this season Phaneuf still has five years left on his contract. Following next year when Cowen and Michalek contracts are up, Toronto will free up a ton of cap space moving forward. Trading Phaneuf could be step one for the Leafs in signing Steven Stamkos this off-season.
For Ottawa they landed a proven second pairing defenseman that brings grit and toughness. The biggest asset Ottawa gave up in this deal was the 2nd round draft pick in 2017. The main concern for Ottawa is very similar to Winnipeg’s deal with Byfuglien: How will Phaneuf’s game hold up physically at the back end of his deal when he is in his mid-thirties with an annual cap hit of $7 million?
The Senators have acquired Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf in a nine-player trade https://t.co/Lf2DmdAzuS pic.twitter.com/aV5tBNRHYy
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 9, 2016
Byfuglien was going to be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. For most teams he would have been the most desirable UFA blueliner come July 1st. Byfuglien does turn 31 next month, so there are concerns regarding him wearing down at the back end of his contract. Byfuglien has a rare skill set for a defenseman: He brings physicality, energy and offensive skill from the blue line. However, in terms of his defensive prowess, the 6’5, 260 pound D-man is slightly above average.
I have no doubts that in the first half of his new deal Byfuglien will continue his current level of play. I would however be concerned about the last two years of the contract, especially considering the physical style Byfuglien plays with. From a PR standpoint it would have been difficult for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to trade away both Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd and sell that to his fan base. Personally, if I was running the Jets, I would have moved forward by not committing big long-term money to player(s) in their thirties.
#NHLJets sign Dustin Byfuglien to a five-year contract extension. >> https://t.co/nGxWwXyCz9 pic.twitter.com/CT2KSywYsN
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) February 8, 2016
I would be very surprised if the Jets now sign Ladd, who is a UFA at season’s end. Signing another player in his thirties to a very lucrative long-term deal is a dangerous proposition. The smart play for Winnipeg is to trade Ladd to the highest bidder. There will be plenty of teams bidding, as almost every playoff contender is struggling to score goals.
Since the Leafs were willing to move Phaneuf what does that say about the prospects of trading Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner or Tyler Bozak? Can any of these players be on the move before the February 29th trade deadline? I think the message has been sent by the Toronto front office that most players on this roster are available.
Finally the next two weeks will be decision time for the Carolina Hurricanes and what they do with pending UFA Eric Staal. Going into Saturday’s action, Carolina was tied for 10th place in the Eastern Conference with Montreal with 58 points. The Hurricanes were five points out of a playoff spot. Over the next two weeks GM Ron Francis will have to decide whether to sign the 31-year-old Staal to a long-term deal or move him to the highest bidder for the best package of young players, prospects and draft picks. It would be wise for Francis to look at the big picture regarding his organization.