They say coaches get fired because you can't trade all 20 players.
Never one to follow the conventional wisdom, Brian Burke looks like he's willing to give it a shot.
After months of promising change to one of the league's most disappointing lineups, Toronto's acerbic GM finally delivered early Sunday morning with a massive swap that saw the Leafs send Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Ian White and Jamal Mayers to the Calgary Flames for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and prospect Keith Aulie.
An hour later, the team confirmed another deal that sent Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake to the Anaheim Ducks for Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
At a time when the salary cap has made it all but impossible complete trades of any significance, let alone an old-style blockbuster, credit the desperation of a couple of teams for making something of this magnitude possible. That the Flames were willing to cut ties with Phaneuf, a Norris Trophy finalist just two years ago, was a stunner. But for a team that had lost nine straight before Saturday's 6-1 beatdown of the Oilers, it was clear that something had to give. The situation was equally dire in Toronto, where a 2-9-2 skid dropped them into the Eastern Conference cellar. With the playoffs out of the question and their first-round pick already dealt to the Bruins, Burke saw a team, and a fan base, that needed a reason to believe.
"Big deals aren't extinct, but they're endangered," Burke said while announcing the Calgary swap. "It was nice to pull one off."
A quick breakdown of how the deals affect each team:
Toronto gets the most talented player in the swap in Phaneuf, a defenseman whose discipline and focus have come into question this season as he basically played his way off a roster spot with Team Canada. Still, at 25, he has the potential to re-emerge as a truly elite performer. His nasty physical game makes him the prototypical Burke blueliner and his offensive leanings should be better exploited by Ron Wilson than they were this season by by Flames' coach Brent Sutter. The trick for the Leafs will be to find a way to eliminate the mental mistakes that plagued him in Calgary and convince him to pass on the occasional big hit in order to stay in a more effective defensive posture. If they can do that, this deal is a massive win for Toronto.
In Giguere, they get a goalie who won a Cup under Burke in 2007 and whose greatest success came under the guidance of current Leafs coach Francois Allaire. With one more year left on his current deal, Jiggy comes in with the expectation that he'll bridge the gap as the No. 1 goaltender, allowing Jonas Gustavsson time to mature into the role.
Sjostrom brings a big body and some quick feet, but not much else. His appeal to the Leafs lies solely in his potential to help their 30th ranked penalty kill. Honestly, he can't make it any less effective.
Getting Aulie in the bargain might have been the biggest surprise. The 6-6, 215 defender was a member of Canada's 2009 gold-medal winning squad at the World Juniors and could add another bruising presence to Toronto's blueline. He's still a couple years away, but with top-four potential he'll be worth the wait. Keep his name filed away for future reference.
The new-look Leafs should be more formidable in their own zone (didn't we hear that last summer?), but the deals stripped the remaining powder from a popgun offense. Gone are 57 of the team's 149 goals and four of their top-eight scorers. Stajan was a dead man walking from the moment Wilson became coach, but he was still their best center and the only one who'd found any real chemistry with Phil Kessel (check out the sweet dishes that turned into a pair of gimme putts last night against Vancouver). Hagman was the team's leading goal scorer with 20, and was a reliable defensive presence. Blake never lived up to the expectations that came with that massive contract he signed in free agency, but was a favorite of Wilson's for his work ethic this season.
If Burke wants to build from the back out, he took another impressive step in that direction -- and he did it without dishing top prospects like Luke Schenn or Nazem Kadri. Nice work. Now he has to do something, anything, to help an offense that's basically Kessel and a bunch of minor leaguers.
Two days ago, I was convinced there was little to no chance that Phaneuf would be dealt by the Flames but his departure makes sense on a couple levels. First, it clears some long-term cap space for a team that's spent much of the past two seasons scrunched up against the ceiling. More to the point, GM Darryl Sutter desperately needed to shake up an impotent offense that was submarining their playoff chances. In Hagman, they get a small-ticket, 30-goal scorer who is under contract for two more years at just $3 million. He'll immediately slip into their top six and take some of the pressure off Jarome Iginla, the only player on the team whose goal total (24) outstrips his own (20).
Stajan (16-25-41) becomes Calgary's second-leading scorer and gives the Flames the chance to alter a chemistry experiment that clearly wasn't providing much fizz. He did his best work in Toronto setting up Kessel down low -- an area where Iginla hasn't ventured often enough this season -- and he's a better finisher than current top center Olli Jokinen.
White fills Phaneuf's spot on the blueline and provides a more stable, albeit less physical, presence. Mayers should find the accommodations in the Saddledome press box to his liking.
Just as important as the bodies were to Sutter were the salary implications. Stajan and Mayers are both expiring contracts who could/should be off the books this summer. White is an RFA whose bargaining position is less sturdy considering the Flames' blueline depth. He'll either have to lower his expectations or settle for temporary housing in Calgary.
Had to be tough to give up on Phaneuf, especially with no truly high-end performer coming back in return, but his value had clearly diminished with his erratic play this season. Needing a change, the Flames settled for some alternatives up front, and cap room next season. Not the perfect deal, but it can be justified in the short term. Whether it is as defensible a year or two down the road seems a little less likely.
The Ducks put their eggs in Jonas Hiller's basket on Saturday, signing their current and future No. 1 to a four-year, $18 million deal. They needed to move Giguere -- who was unhappy as a back-up -- and his $6 million cap hit ASAP. Toskala provides them with a more affordable understudy, and better yet, an expiring contract. Blake has two more years remaining at $4 million per, and he's no more likely to live up to that in Anaheim than he did in Toronto. Still, the change of scenery might do him some good and there's a chance he could chip in with some tenacity, and maybe 25 goals, if things go his way.