As the losses mounted and his team sunk further into the basement of the Eastern Conference you just knew that Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was itching to pull the trigger on something that would shake up his team. Not just something, something big. A headline grabber that would befit his DNA makeup.
On the last day of January consider it Mission Accomplished. Actually make that Mission Accomplished Times Two.
Burke announced this morning that the Leafs had acquired defenseman Dion Phaneuf (photo) from the Calgary Flames as the headliner in a seven-player trade. Shortly after that announcement Burke was back to confirm that he had picked up goaltender J-S Giguere from Anaheim in a three-player swap.
Phaneuf and Giguere. A couple of years ago Burke would have been heralded as a genius for landing this pair. Then again a couple of years ago there is no way Calgary would have traded Phaneuf or Anaheim would have dealt Giguere, two All Stars playing at the top of their game.
But the last two years have tarnished the on-ice images of both Phaneuf and Giguere as each player has seen a rather steep decline in his play. Burke is banking on both to return to form, and if that happens, he will indeed be heralded as a gutsy genius.
Of course both players will have to resurrect their careers in the crucible that is hockey-mad Toronto, while also trying to lift a marquee Original-Six franchise back to respectability. No easy task for Phaneuf and Giguere. This isn't exactly going to Nashville or Atlanta or Long Island to quietly go about getting your game back on track.
At his best Phaneuf is a monster on the blueline, a vicious hitter with a booming shot. He can be a force in both ends of the ice, a minute-muncher who is deployed in all critical game situations. Two years ago he played in all 82 games, notched 17 goals and 60 points, and racked up 182 penalty minutes while being selected to the NHL's First All-Star Team.
The last year-and-a-half Phaneuf has seen his offensive numbers decline along with his steady play in his own end. He was a minus-11 last year, and often seemed disinterested and not engaged. Did anyone say "Security of long-term contract"?
Though better this season, Phaneuf's play has not quite returned to form. Hence today's deal as the Flames gave up on the 6'3", 214 pounder who is still only 24 years old.
"[Phaneuf] is a warrior. He's got a cannon for a shot," Burke said after the deal was announced. "He plays the game hard and I want players who play the game hard because they're hard to play against."
To get Phaneuf, useful 3rd/4th line winger Fredric Sjostrom, and six-foot-six defense prospect Keith Aulie from Calgary, Burke traded away four players, losing quite a bit of his limited scoring depth along the way. Toronto sent winger Niklas Hagman (a three-time 20-goal scorer who has exactly 20 this year), center Matt Stajan (41 points in 55 games this season), rugged Jamal Mayers, and solid defenseman Ian White (a career-high tying 26 points, plus a respectable plus-1 rating) to Calgary.
From Calgary's point of view they are clearly trying to shake up the mix. The Flames have been struggling, and clearly the Sutter Brothers felt Phaneuf was expendable what with their deep backline. White will fit in quite nicely along with Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr, et. al in Calgary, though he is due a big raise at the end of the season. Calgary's inconsistent offense gets a boost with Hagman and Stajan.
Good deal from the Flames point of view, UNLESS Phaneuf regains form. Then this trade will haunt them for years to come.
As for Giguere, his future has been in doubt ever since Jonas Hiller challenged his reign as the No. 1 goalie in Anaheim a year ago. Hiller took over the mantle this season, and his inking a four-year $18 million extension on Saturday was the final nail in the coffin for Jiggy.
So Giguere takes his Stanley Cup ring and Conn Smythe Trophy and heads to Toronto to try and resurrect his sagging career. He is only 32 years old, and is just two years removed from a season that saw him post a 2.12 goals against average, four shutouts and 35 wins for a Ducks team that was run at the time, not so coincidentally, by Burke.
It will be interesting to see how Jiggy responds to this challenge. Jonas Gustavvson essentially plays the role of Hiller in Toronto, so his situation has not changed a whole heckuva' lot. Except for the fact that he is now playing for a worse team than he did in Anaheim, where his goals against rose to 3.10 last season and 3.14 in 20 games this year.
Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake were shipped to the Ducks in order for Giguere to be reunited with Burke and goaltending guru Francois Allaire in Toronto. Toskala, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, replaces Giguere as Hiller's back-up. And Blake is the classic case of addition by subtraction for the Leafs. His play has diminished greatly since signing as a free agent in the summer of 2007 following his breakout 40-goal season with the Islanders. Plus he wore out his welcome with his grating personality rather quickly in TO.
Time will tell if Burke mined some gold today, or if it really is Fool's Gold. But he swung for the fences in a city that demands so much if its hockey team.
Good for Brian Burke. Good day for hockey.