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Dion Phaneuf trade analysis: I might miss him

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This is a weird article I never dreamed I’d write

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Things are strange in this social media age. On the one hand, our attention spans are 10 seconds long. If you haven’t entertained me today, I might lose interest in you forever. On the other hand, everything we’ve said or done is preserved forever in The Internet Vault, to be brought back at a later date to our shame and regret.

I had an interesting moment just a two weeks ago related to this, when a Facebook memory popped up:

At the time, I was living in Waterloo, ON, surrounded by Maple Leafs fans. The Dion Phaneuf trade (and J.S. Giguère trade, funny enough) was seen as a franchise-altering move for Toronto. Suddenly it didn’t matter that they weren’t good that year, because the future was coming. It was all too easy to hate him for the 6.5 seasons he was the Leafs’ captain (and to love Scott Hartnell’s “Suck It Phaneuf” line at the All-Star Game in Ottawa).

I remember the trade that went down on February 9th, 2016. Living in Calgary by this point, I woke up a couple hours later than most residents of Ottawa to discover the hated Phaneuf was suddenly a Senator. It took some time to process, but once I’d reasoned it all out, it made sense to me. I gave the trade an A-. The Sens offloaded a bunch of deadweight contracts that Eugene Melnyk would never have bought out. In return, they got a top-four defenceman (and spare parts) for a second-round pick and Tobias Lindberg. In the short term it was a win for the Sens, who were paying Phaneuf less than the combined salaries of Colin Greening, Milan Michalek, and Jared Cowen, and Phaneuf was actually going to play in the NHL. In the long term we knew Phaneuf’s contract would be a problem, but I was hoping that he could slot in well on this team as a 3D for a few years, away from the pressures of the captaincy and the circus in Toronto.

I remember going to my lone Sens game of the year that spring, when the team came to play the Flames. Naturally, as soon as Phaneuf touched the puck, the whole arena booed, so my little segment of Sens fans screamed our appreciation. Suddenly, it was, “Hey, they hate OUR player! They can’t get away with that!” I wasn’t sure how easily I’d emotionally thaw to Phaneuf. Turns out it took less than a month. I was prepared to cheer for him in an arena full of dissidents.

We can argue now how accurate my analysis was all those years ago. He was often polarizing as a player, but at least part of that was his pairing with Cody Ceci being a) cemented in stone despite the terrible results they got together, and b) horribly miscast as a shutdown duo. Phaneuf was a scorer with a booming shot, and it didn’t make sense at age 30 to suddenly turn him into a shutdown guy.

I grew to really like Phaneuf. He seemed to become a good friend of Karlsson’s.

And with Phaneuf being five years older, let’s not underestimate how much his experience as an NHL d-man and captain rubbed off on EK. I’m sure Karlsson appreciated having someone to go to when he had questions about his role as a leader.

I’m sure Phaneuf’s veteran presence helped with a long playoff run in the spring, not to mention his likely biggest on-ice contribution as a Senator:

Even the fact that he personally shook hands with each media member in his final scrum as a Senator:

He was a classy guy who always seemed grateful for his time in Ottawa, knowing the fans could’ve hated him as the former Leafs captain. Instead, it almost became a rallying cry for Sens fans, that the “washed-up” captain the Leafs gave up on was actually a contributing member of the Sens.

The thing that was hard to debate was the fact that his contract was toxic. Eating up a $7M cap hit for three more seasons, and a good chunk of it in un-buyoutable bonuses, was a problem. With Melnyk demanding the team cut salary, it seemed that if Phaneuf could go, he would. No one would argue he was worth his cap hit, regardless of his on-ice contributions (much like Bobby Ryan). There’s a good chance Marian Gaborik will get bought out for even more savings, or even could retire, in which case the Sens are off the hook for all his cash. That’s huge with Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson, and, yes, Cody Ceci needing extensions in the near future.

But I still miss Phaneuf. It was a real feel-good story that the hated Leafs captain could become a much-loved player in Ottawa. It’s hard to believe he only played two years here. In the end, it’s too bad he got traded to the Kings, because there’s no way I can cheer for a team with Drew Doughty. Maybe I’ll get lucky and be able to cheer for Phaneuf again in 2019-20.