It was a franchise-altering blockbuster by former GM Cliff Fletcher that will go down as one of the greatest deals by the Leafs, a move that would pave the way for a pair of spring runs no one here will ever forget, either.
Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesLeafs GM Brian Burke on Dion Phaneuf: "This is a guy that likes it crude and likes it black and blue, and that's how we want him to play."
On Sunday, it was current Leafs GM Brian Burke who pulled off the jaw-dropping trade, a seven-player deal with Calgary that has the potential to finally put this franchise back on the right track. Toronto acquired Dion Phaneuf, right winger Fredrik Sjostrom and defenseman Keith Aulie in exchange for defenseman Ian White, center Matt Stajan, left winger Niklas Hagman and right winger Jamal Mayers.
"Putting a seven-player deal together today is unbelievably difficult," Fletcher, now a senior adviser with the Leafs, told ESPN.com on Sunday. "Back when I did that deal with Calgary, there were no financial considerations at all. It was just players for players. This was so much difficult. But we think today we got a player we can really build around in Dion Phaneuf."
But forget all the other players that changed teams in Calgary, Toronto and Anaheim -- this trade is really all about one player, Phaneuf.
"Phaneuf is a gamble, but if he hits, they will win this deal huge," a GM who requested anonymity told ESPN.com on Sunday.
"It's about getting an A-lister, and Burkie did that today," added another unnamed GM.
Now he's got two.
"In the last four months, we've added Phil Kessel, who is an elite player, and Dion Phaneuf, who I view as an elite player," Burke told a packed news conference at Air Canada Centre. "So I think it's a very important day for us."
Listen, Phaneuf doesn't arrive without question marks. He has yet to match the 20 goals from his rookie season in 2005-06 and his exit couldn't come fast enough for members of the Calgary media, who thought he was overrated. But a pair of 17-goal campaigns is a reminder that his potential hasn't gone away -- he's a bona fide offensive blueliner with a physical game that had Burke drooling from the first day he thought he might have a shot at him.
"This is a guy that likes it crude and likes it black and blue, and that's how we want him to play," said Burke.
At first, Burke's advances to Flames GM Darryl Sutter got the cold shoulder. Sutter, as he told me earlier this month, had no desire to move Phaneuf. But an ensuing nine-game winless streak changed all that. The pressure was on for Sutter to make a move, and Burke made sure to exploit that.
This is why Burke was brought in to run this sad-sack franchise -- because he had the reputation and acumen of a GM who could pull off these types of moves. Kessel was also a big acquisition, but a move that right now looks decidedly tilted in favor of the Bruins thanks to a pair of first-round picks going Boston's way, and the June 2010 pick looking like a top-three overall selection.
But there isn't a sense that Burke overpaid this time around. No offense to Stajan, Hagman, Mayers and White, but they are complementary players.
The kicker in all this is some people believe the prospect Toronto got in the deal, the 6-foot-6, 20-year-old defenseman Aulie, is headed for a good NHL career. "He's going to play 15 years in the NHL," said one NHL executive Sunday.
But again, this trade is about Phaneuf, and about Burke showing once again he loves stud blueliners. He added Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin this past summer via free agency. Throw in incumbent Tomas Kaberle, and you've got an impressive top four. Remember Burke's blue line on the Cup-champion Anaheim squad from 2007: Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Beauchemin.
"My philosophy is building from the net out," said Burke. "It's like pitching in baseball. If you don't have good defensemen, you're not going to win, it doesn't matter how good your forwards are. And it's been a hallmark of all my teams. I try to build up the defense, and that's exactly what happened here today. We added an elite defenseman and a guy that plays our kind of hockey."
The second trade Sunday is of lesser importance, but it does shore up Toronto's goaltending for the next year and a half. Giguere, in my mind, remains a top-level netminder; he's 32, not 38. But his $7 million price tag for next season scared off everyone else in the NHL ever since the Ducks first made him available in June.
Give Ducks GM Bob Murray a ton of credit here; from what I'm told, he stayed on Toronto's tail all season long, urging them to give this some thought. The hook all along was Giguere would be reunited with goalie coach Francois Allaire here in Toronto and could provide Jonas Gustavsson excellent mentorship. After all, it worked in Anaheim with Jonas Hiller.
As I first speculated back in November, the plan was sound, but the Leafs balked at the $7 million salary for next season. Once Anaheim was willing to take back money, things changed. Toronto would have preferred to send Jeff Finger back in the deal along with Toskala, but the Ducks asked for Blake instead. Fair enough. Done deal.
Here's why the Giguere deal is also possibly a good thing for Toronto: The Leafs have no desire to be 29th in the standings again next season. They want Giguere to win games for them. The Bruins, after all, also have Toronto's first-round pick next season. Hence, Giguere has a useful short-term role here.
So, six players emptied their dressing room stalls at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday, and Burke is still working the phones.
"We're still open for business. We're not done," Burke said.
Suddenly hot winger Alexei Ponikarovsky is garnering more and more attention, and he's an unrestricted free agent July 1. He's a goner. So are a few more Leafs. Those deals, however, won't have the impact of Sunday's acquisition of Phaneuf.
This is a franchise that last hosted an NHL playoff game in April 2004. The playoff drought will be at least six seasons and counting. The Cup drought will be 43 years and counting.
On Sunday, what the die-hard members of Leaf Nation finally got for the first time in a long, long time, was hope.