We all know that Dion Phaneuf was traded today. Rather than julienne the trade such that we cannot even recognize the pieces, we think it notable that Dion Phaneuf got traded at all. We also think it notable that Phil Kessel got traded. We think it exceptionally notable that both players got traded for absolutely no corporeal hockey players who are actually well-above-average and signed beyond this season. In other words, the Leafs turned nothing into 'something'.
It is a product of the times that we see a player like Phaneuf, once thought totally untouchable and a future Hall of Fame defenseman, traded for 3 around-average players. Phaneuf's value has obviously fallen a great deal - it's not just his 6.5 million dollar salary and his diminishing interest in the defensive zone. There is a specter looming over the NHL, and it's the specter of the possibly falling salary cap. We think it's why Brian Burke has been so aggressive in pursuing both free agents and trades for unwanted commodities instead of just gently failing.
Surely in a rising salary cap era, Phil Kessel, if he demands a trade out of Boston, gets moved for players. Surely in a rising salary cap era, Phaneuf's contract is still somewhat valuable because he's locked up for a long time - when salary caps and salaries rise, the value of long term contracts increase even if the player's on-ice performance does not. Likewise, when salary caps fall, long-term contracts values do too. Phaneuf's play appears to have stagnated - had Calgary waited until next season to try to move Phaneuf, he may have lost all value entirely.
Even with the two deals they've managed today, the Maple Leafs will still have plenty of salary cap room for next season - our estimates give the Leafs 9 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goalies, at a total of $40.85 million. If the salary cap stays where it is, that's a comfortable $15.65 million with which to sign 4 forwards and a defenseman. Burke can still forage for goodies in the Chicago implosion. He can still try to profit off of Edmonton's collapse (we know not how, but he can do it). Toronto can still be a dumping ground for bad contracts next season if teams are struggling financially; they could even sign Ilya Kovalchuk were they so inclined.
The larger question is about Brian Burke's rebuilding strategy - as we have seen throughout NHL history, teams who do poorly for long stretches of time tend to improve. The Quebec Nordiques of the late 80s and early 90s, the Ottawa Senators of the early 90s, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks of this decade - all of these teams were terrible for a good long while, and certainly Brian Burke could have gone that route. We think he chose not to for the reasons above - that impending salary cap problems are making teams antsy about keeping players on long-term contracts, and that Burke can profit from this enough to build a Stanley Cup contender without having to go through a prolonged period of losing. He's not going to get star-level players without giving up a large bounty - certainly this Kessel gambit appears like it may backfire - but with Burke's ability to seemingly have star-level players gifted to him, the Leafs may yet defy accepted NHL wisdom.
Continuation of the previous discussion on placeholder defensemen (got way more intense than we thought it could)
Rookie playoff scoring since the lockout