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Ottawa's trade for Dion Phaneuf is exactly the trade Ron Hextall would not make

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Ottawa traded for a big-name, big-money player in hopes of winning in the short-term. The Flyers of five years ago would have done that, but not anymore.

Len Redkoles / NHL Images via Getty
Len Redkoles / NHL Images via Getty

The Ottawa Senators made a gigantic trade today, acquiring defenseman Dion Phaneuf (and the six years and $42 million remaining on his contract) from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a whopping nine-player trade.

I had three immediate reactions to this deal.

"Hey, Toronto just ditched a huge salary. Good for them."

Here's what the Leafs got:

  • D Jared Cowen (age 25, $3.1 million salary through 2016-17)
  • LW Colin Greening (age 29, buried in AHL, $1.7 million on cap til 16-17)
  • LW Milan Michalek (age 31, on IR, $4 million / 2016-17)
  • prospect RW Tobias Lindberg (age 20, on entry-level deal)
  • 2nd round pick in 2017

They aren't competing in the next few years, and all of hockey knows this. So they pick up three players with soon-to-be expiring contracts, the best prospect in this trade in Lindberg -- no guarantee he's an NHL player in waiting, though -- and a draft pick.

This deal was more about ditching the long-term contract of Phaneuf than anything else. We can see exactly what the Leafs are doing here.

"Wow, I guess Ottawa really thinks they can make a run."

Here's what the Senators got:

  • D Dion Phaneuf (age 30, $7 million through 2020-21)
  • RW Matt Frattin (age 28, likely AHL player, $800k, UFA this summer)
  • prospect C Casey Bailey (age 24, on entry-level, RFA this summer)
  • prospect C Ryan Rupert (age 21, entry-level, RFA in summer 2017)
  • prospect D Cody Donaghey (age 19, entry-level, RFA 2018)

Adding a top-two defenseman with a huge contract, an AHL player, and three prospects who are unlikely to make the NHL. For what it's worth, Sens fans really like this move. Our friends at Senators blog Silver Seven rationalize it as such:

So overall: Ottawa got the best player in the deal by far; Ottawa shed some overpaid players we thought would never be traded, hopefully shedding enough salary to extend [Mike] Hoffman; Toronto got the best prospect in the deal, but he was hardly a blue-chipper. I'd say for those of us saying Ottawa's core is great and the team was ready to compete now, this trade is a big win. Ottawa becomes way more competitive in the next 2-3 seasons, without really mortgaging the future either. The only issue is that Phaneuf's salary may be a problem in a couple seasons. It remains to be seen if Murray is done trading, or if this is just the start of building up for a Stanley Cup run in an admittedly weak division.

The questions then shift: Can the Sens really compete for a Cup? Are they overvaluing their current team? Are they overvaluing Phaneuf?

And that brings me to the third thought I had about this trade.

"This is exactly the kind of trade Ron Hextall would not make."

The Sens and Flyers are pretty similar teams right now. They each have a few very good players, and then a good amount of crap. When it comes to the standings, the Flyers are actually a touch ahead of Ottawa right now -- one point behind them but with three games in hand.

The Flyers and Ron Hextall are not lying to themselves about their team, and they haven't been for a long time now. We all know that any hope of success in the 2016 postseason will be more of the 2010 Flyers variety. It'd be lucky. A Cinderella story. This team isn't a sleeping giant in need of one or two players to push them over the top, and they aren't going to take on insane contracts based on a pipe dream.

And yet the Sens apparently think otherwise, despite the fact that they needed an absurd hot streak to get into the playoffs last year and they'll need to close the season very strong to get in again now. They believe they can make a trade like this -- add one defenseman and maybe another move or two before the deadline -- and jump into Cup contention.

Personally, I think they're fooling themselves.

Sure, maybe their core is further along than that of the Flyers. Maybe they feel this gives them hope not just this year, but also the next two or three.

But Ottawa has a lot going against it: they've allowed more goals this season than any team in the NHL, they are a bottom-five possession team in the league, they have a bottom 10 power play, the league's worst penalty kill, and despite being the fifth-best scoring team in the league at even strength, they're still on the outside looking in with regards to the playoffs.

And they're not a team like Anaheim that's better than their season-long numbers indicate. They're not just waiting for the percentages to balance out here, after which they'll rocket up the standings like the Ducks have. They have legitimate issues, some of which Phaneuf may help fix, but many of which one player cannot fix himself.

Then there's the issue of Phaneuf himself. It's sure possible that the Leafs just completely tricked the Senators into taking a player who is worth significantly less than his contract, and that's before you get into the long-term nature of that contract. I'll let Jonathan Willis explain, because he is much smarter than I am.

In Phaneuf’s case, the Maple Leafs succeeded in doing something that NHL teams often try and generally fail at. They deliberately worked to increase his value and then shipped him away; it’s commonly called a pump-and-dump and only rarely is it done masterfully enough that another team is fooled. In this case, the Senators were, as is obvious from the return Toronto managed to land. [...]

Today, that strategy paid off for the Leafs. They managed to dump a 30-year-old who is already overpaid and whose contract will become increasingly onerous as his skills fade with age. That’s remarkable in itself; more remarkable still is that the Leafs managed to do it without taking on any bad long-term deals in exchange and without retaining any money on Phaneuf’s contract.

The Flyers of Paul Holmgren's era may have been fooled by their strong play of late, thinking that a player like Phaneuf -- or Dustin Byfuglien, who was on the trade market until he signed a new deal in Winnipeg yesterday -- would be enough to bump them into the postseason and hopefully beyond.

Those teams were the ones that would get fooled like Ottawa did today. They'd take on a crazy contract without true regard for the terrible long-term consequences it'd bring, as long as it helped them out in the short-term.

Under Hextall, the Flyers have focus. They're not going to do exactly what Ottawa did today. They're not going to risk the future -- whether it's by acquiring financial obligations that will hurt them later, or by trading players that will help them later. It's refreshing, and worth the reminder.