clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Looking back at the Phaneuf and Stajan trade

One of the Flames' most controversial trades ever gets the retrospective treatment.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Dion Phaneuf got traded, in case you didn't hear. The final piece of Toronto's bad business at the turn of the decade has been shipped out of town in a blockbuster deal that will probably reap no immediate benefits for either team (the state of hockey north of 49 is pretty dismal). He's also the last piece the Leafs had remaining from the infamous January 31st, 2010 trade.

Phaneuf's first trade was only two players short of number of players involved in yesterday's trade, but the 2010 trade really only boils down to two players. Of the other players sent Calgary's way, none made it past the 2013 season (Niklas Hagman went to Europe after the 11-12 season, Jamal Mayers retired in 2013, and Ian White went to the KHL during the lockout, and then remained in the AHL until last year). For the Leafs, Fredrik Sjostrom stuck around for a year before heading to Sweden, and Keith Aulie lasted two before being dealt to the Lightning. He just recently popped up in hockey hell last season, located about three hours north of Calgary. This trade was purely about Dion Phaneuf and Matt Stajan.

And by that statement, many thought that the Leafs had, once again, ripped off the Flames for all they could take. After six years of hockey, the answer is a bit more muddled.

Leading up to the trade:

Phaneuf was a defensive prospect unlike any others. For most of his rookie season, he posed a serious challenge to Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin's Calder campaigns, and was emerging as a contender for the Norris Trophy (not to mention an NHL 09 cover appearance). He was the face of the rejuvenated Flames, and then they dealt him.

It was a weird trade at the time for both teams. The Leafs were among the worst in the league, finishing at the bottom of the East by the end of the season, and certainly high on no one's list for trade destinations. The Flames were still contending for the playoffs, but barely. After a hot start to the season, struggles began piling up, and Phaneuf was the scapegoat. His deteriorating defensive play combined with a rift in the locker room -- allegedly with captain Jarome Iginla, definitely with Brent Sutter -- made him a trade block candidate.

As the chart reflects, Phaneuf had started to slip away starting in 2008-09, but was returning to good form in 09-10. The panic that Darryl Sutter felt about midway through the 09-10 season (one could argue this cost him his job) meant sending away those who weren't exceeding expectation. Phaneuf was one of those players. He wasn't driving play much, especially considering his soft zone starts, but he wasn't a massive possession liability. Granted, analytics weren't much in use by front offices at the time, so his struggle on the scoresheet was one of the deciding factors. Phaneuf's 22 points through 55 games was especially concerning when he had put up 47 in his disappointing 08-09 campaign.

The Flames believes that Dion had hit his peak, wouldn't get much better, and decided to sell. Phaneuf was only 24 when he was traded to the Leafs, and to believe that there was nothing left for the defenceman was a very risky move to make. By today's standards, that's a major mistake in waiting. No matter how many years of NHL experience they get, young players are still prone to mistakes, and one shouldn't confuse form with talent. That's why everyone will forever laugh at Boston for running Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, and Dougie Hamilton out of town. However, despite his youth, the Flames felt they knew the player well enough to pull the trigger.

For the Leafs, they didn't seem to have much of a strategy at the time beyond acquiring shiny things (like Kessel) and hoping for a turnaround. Stajan, believe it or not, was one of their great young hopes that could've been a key building block for the franchise. At the end of the 09-10 season, he was still tied for third in Leafs scoring. He was 14 points behind leader Phil Kessel, with only 15 less games, and only eight points behind second place Tomas Kaberle with 27 less games. What I'm trying to say is that Matt Stajan was once an offensive weapon.

Matt Stajan, offensive weapon! Not only did he put up points, he could drive play. He rarely started a shift in the offensive zone relative to his team (knowing how bad some of these Leafs teams were, that could mean he started a lot of defensive shifts), and he always drove the puck forward against some good competition. That's pretty good.

And that's what the Flames hoped to acquire. By the time of the trade, the Flames were in the bottom third of the NHL in goals scored. While they were in the opposite position with respect to goals against, their impotent offence was catching up and the losses began piling in. The top talents weren't getting it done by themselves, so the bottom six needed rejuvenation. Why not pluck someone else's top scorer in there?

So basically, the trade is out-of-favour yet young defenceman for undervalued scorer? I wonder how this will turn out!

How this turns out:

I'll begin with a few statements of fact. Phaneuf's highest scoring full season with the Leafs was a 44 point effort in 2011-12. His lowest scoring full season with the Flames was 47 points in 08-09. Matt Stajan's high with the Leafs was 55 points in 76 games during 08-09. His high with the Flames was 33 in 63 games. The point is that this will not end well.

Let's start with Stajan, this being a Flames blog and all:

He's kind of all over the place here. When Stajan came, he almost immediately earned a spot in Brett Sutter's doghouse and the spite of Flames fans for not producing offensively. Under Sutter, this was a reputation that he somewhat earned. Relative zone starts and quality of competition being around the same, Stajan's corsi rel went down. Maybe it was because he was playing on a better team and didn't get the luxury of having top six players on his wings. Regardless of the excuse, his production declined nonetheless.

He was quietly resurrected under Bob Hartley. Compare the x-axis on both Stajan graphs. You'll notice how often Bob Hartley throws him to the dogs (with Brandon Bollig, no less), and how he still maintains a reasonable corsi rel regardless of the defensive assignments. Stajan has found success as a defensive stalwart, turning him into one of the Flames' most dependable guys night-in, night-out.

The same can't really be said for Phaneuf. Like Stajan, usage matters. During his time in Calgary, the Flames rarely started Phaneuf in any place other than the offensive zone. The team believed that Phaneuf's weakness was the defensive zone, obviously concerning for a defender. Management thought that this was an irreparable aspect of Phaneuf's game, and chose to ship him out while his value was still high. The Leafs gladly took on that project, choosing to use him in a defensive role anyway. This became troublesome, especially as their defensive corps began to disintegrate until it was pretty much just Phaneuf. Then he disintegrated. Phaneuf wasn't a number one defenceman: the Flames knew that, and the Leafs found out.

(Interestingly enough, the Leafs also capitalized on his offensive zone strengths this season, placing him against weaker opponents and giving him very easy zone starts to boost his value. Let's hope Kyle Dubas never plays the stock market.)

So who won?

It's not entirely useful to simply compare this based purely on points, seeing as there are many other factors involved in the creation of those points (Phaneuf never had to play with Bollig, for example). To see who won, we really have to look at what each team was trying to accomplish with this trade

For the Leafs, they were looking for a future number one defender they could build around. They only got one in name. Phaneuf's disastrous tenure with the Leafs was perhaps the biggest reason their Golden Generation failed. Many liked to pin the failure of the Leafs to Phaneuf and Kessel, but at least Kessel could claim that he performed around the same or better than he did in Boston. Phaneuf couldn't.

For the Flames, they wanted a fair return for Phaneuf that would also stop the bleeding in 09-10. Stajan doesn't fit that either. The Flames implanted Stajan and assumed he would perform the same, ignoring the fact that he no longer had first line wingers on his side. The only reason we can debate this topic is because of the salvage job Hartley did, turning Matt Stajan into a useful player rather than a castaway. That point is moot anyways, because Stajan only provided a solution long after the problem stopped being a problem.

But maybe the return never really mattered. The Flames are arguably the winners of this trade by sending away a lemon and getting value for it. Phaneuf had a hidden flaw, and the longer he was in Calgary, the more likely it would become league-wide knowledge.They avoided the entire mess that Toronto has been dealing with for nearly the past two seasons.

But the Flames didn't get much in return to really make them an outright winner. Phaneuf didn't anchor Toronto's defence, but Stajan hasn't contributed much outside of quiet bottom six production. If Nik Hagman or Ian White stayed around for a year or two more, maybe the Flames would have a better case, but alas. Pound for pound, you might be able to say that this trade was a wash.

But we are forgetting one important stat: series winning goals against the Vancouver Canucks, of which, Matt Stajan has one compared to Phaneuf's 0. This is the only meaningful stat in my mind, so debate over.