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On the Phaneuf Deal

When I looked at the Calgary Flames roster in the summer I concluded by saying that the Flames were spending too much money on defence both in the present and looking into the future - someone needed to be moved.  In a cap system there are really only so many dollars to spend and, even if you're only spending it on good players, spending too much of it in any one area can really hurt.  I like to use the following as a set of general guidelines:

Top 3 Forwards - 27.5%
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0%
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5%
Goaltending - 10.0%
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0%

Yesterday, the Flames made a very significant transaction and maybe even two.  After the jump, we'll take a look at how the Flames altered this structure both before and after yesterday's move(s).

Prior to the season the Flames had spent extensively on the back end.  If we assume a cap of 56 million (leaving $800,000 dollars in wiggle room), this is how the Flames spent (in terms of cap hit) coming into this season:

Top 3 Forwards - Iginla, Jokinen, Langkow = 16.75M or 30.0%

Middle 6 Forwards - Bourque, Moss, Glencross, Conroy, Dawes, Boyd 6.40M or 11.4%

Top 4 Defenders - Phaneuf, Bouwmeester, Regehr, Sarich = 20.80M or 37.1%

Goaltending - Kiprusoff, McElhinney = 6.37M or 11.4%

Bottom 8 Players - Giordano, Pardy, Johnson, Nystrom, Sjostrom, Prust, McGrattan, Lundmark = 5.22M or 9.2%

The Flames were a top heavy team, spending much more than the model on their top three forwards and top four defenders.  But to spend more in one area, you need to take from another and the Flames took liberally from both the middle and bottom of their roster.  Saving money at the bottom of the is probably a good idea if you can manage it but taking money from the middle of your forward corps is likely to cause issues in terms of depth.  If some of your big forwards don't deliver as much as expected (Jokinen, Iginla), the problem can become glaring.  For the Flames the larger issue was the length of all these contracts.  All four of the top defenders, the starting goalie and two of the top three forwards were signed for at least three years.  The Flames had made a long term bet that a top heavy team with the money focused on defencemen could be a contender.

The events of yesterday changed course significantly.  The only confirmed deal is the trade of Dion Phaneuf to the Toronto Maple Leafs.  The complete deal is as follows:

To Calgary - Ian White, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers
To Toronto - Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, Keith Aulie

My focus thus far has been on cap considerations and that's where I'll begin.  Here's the updated salary chart after the transaction:

Top 3 Forwards - Iginla, Jokinen, Langkow = 16.75M or 30.0%

Middle 6 Forwards - Bourque, Moss, Glencross, Stajan, Dawes, Hagman 9.45M or 16.9%

Top 4 Defenders - Bouwmeester, Regehr, Sarich, Giordano = 15.19M or 27.1%

Goaltending - Kiprusoff, McElhinney = 6.37M or 11.4%

Bottom 8 Players - White, Pardy, Johnson, Nystrom, Boyd, Prust, McGrattan, Conroy = 5.52M or 10.0%

If nothing else, the Flames trade of Dion Phaneuf restores some balance to the pay structure which I think is pretty important when you're trying to create a winning team.  When you consider the fact that Jokinen is coming off the books this summer (and maybe a whole lot sooner!), the Flames have put themselves in a much better position.  The only long-term salary coming back is that of Niklas Hagman which also frees up cap space going forward.  Strictly in terms of pay structure, I think the Flames made a very good deal here.  (In an interesting twist, the Maple Leafs have gone in the other direction.  Their top four defenders are now earning 19.05M (or 34.0% of 56M) and all are signed for both this season and next.  And that number doesn't even include Jeff Finger's 3.5M deal which also runs through next year.  In terms of pay structure, this looks like a pretty bad deal for the Leafs.)

So what about the players?  The main guy on the way out the door is Phaneuf.  I'm of the opinion that Dion Phaneuf is a very good defenceman that has shown some improvement so far this season.  He hasn't been sheltered this season, generally seeing some of the tougher opponents, though with the most favourable zone start ratio among all Flames defenders.  This, of course, makes perfectly good sense.  Although Phaneuf has improved defensively, the strength of his game remains his ability to generate some offence.  He's struggled to do that at EV so far this season, but in both 2007-08 and 2008-09 he did generate good offence at EV (around 1 point per 60 minutes which is a good rate for a defenceman).  His track record on the power play is also very good and he adds a physical element which is a very nice bonus at the very least.  

So that's the good.  The problem for the Flames, aside from the overall pay structure, is the same problem I brough up this summer with regard to Jay Bouwmeester.  Phaneuf is a good young player who is still being paid for potential.  He's also tied for the seventh highest cap hit among defenders this year and I really don't think there's much of an argument that he's one of the seven best defenders in the league.  Nor is it a sure thing he ever gets to that level.  And that's the big problem with Dion Phaneuf.  He's a very good player who will have trouble meeting the expectations of his contract.  It's a less-bad version of the Brian Campbell deal and I think Calgary is probably wise to be rid of it.

The other players moving out are Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie.  Sjostrom's departure is a virtual non-issue.  Sutter showed a real willingness to bring in players on cheap deals in the summer (Dawes, Lundmark, Jaffray, Sjostrom) so I don't think losing Sjostrom's cheap deal for next year will hurt the Flames at all.  For this season, Sjostrom is more than replaced by the trade return.  To be honest, the Flames now have a tonne of forwards.  I didn't even include Jamal Mayers in my salary breakdown because there wasn't enough room on the roster and I assume he's being demoted once the Flames get Dawes and Moss back from injury.  I don't know much at all about Keith Aulie.  He seems to be a good but not elite defence prospect who has spent his entire this past season in the AHL.  Maybe he ends up being a big part of the return down the line but he's not a "special" player, so I doubt the Flames strongly regret moving him.

In terms of incoming players, the Flames main acquisitions are Ian White and Niklas Hagman.  Hagman has two years left on his deal beyond this one at 3M per season.  Without delving too deeply into it, I quite like Hagman.  He's a player that has performed well in the Western Conference earlier in his career and has managed to be a solid middle six forward option for Toronto.  His contract expires when he's 32 which is a little older than you'd like but it's not "old" either.  Over the last three seasons he's never scored at a rate lower than 1.9 pts/60 at EV while taking on middling to strong competition from the other side.  Given the Flames struggles on offence this is a player with a reasonable contract who fits a need in Calgary and who may even end up playing some with Jarome Iginla.  It's a nice fit.

Ian White is also a very solid pickup.  A restricted free agent at the end of the season he's performed well for a couple of seasons and is having a very good season in 2009-10.  He's an offensive defender who come cheap this year but will probably expect a raise in the near future.  Like Phaneuf, he provides a good amount of offence at even strength and is a solid performer on the PP.  He's received an extremely favourable faceoff ratio at EV (i.e. a LOT of OZ faceoffs to pad his numbers) and he's probably been playing the second toughs most of the time.  He's also quite a bit smaller than Phaneuf and does not bring the same physical game.  He's just not as good as Phaneuf so there will be some drop-off there but the Flames will be able to play him to his strengths (offensive situations) since White is likely to play on the second or even the third pairing and take some of those offensive zone draws that Phaneuf is leaving behind.  I must admit, however, that my hope is that he plays with Bouwmeester so that the two can form the "Defencemen Under the Influence" pairing (White's with a suspended license!  Bonus!). 

The last two players the Flames acquired are both UFAs at the end of this season and couldn't be more different in their ability to help Calgary this year.  Matt Stajan has been taking on tough competition and coming out on top in terms of Corsi.  Although he hasn't outscored his opponents, a lot of that has to do with some atrocious goaltending in Toronto this season.  Given the Flames struggles on offence this year, Stajan is a welcome addition who immediately makes the team stronger.  Jamal Mayers, on the other hand, is just awful.  I suspect the Flames will send him to the minors once they get healthy (and it might not take that long).

To conclude I'll just say that I'm much more impressed with Calgary's side of things in this deal than I am with Toronto's.  I think Calgary did a lot of very good things here in terms of addressing current team needs and giving themselves more long-term flexibility as well as bringing better balance to their salary structure.  But if this Jokinen (and stuff) for Kotalik (and stuff) deal ends up going through... I'll be much less impressed with Sutter's overall performance.  But we'll cross that bridge if and when that second deal gets confirmed.