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McKenzie: Burke affecting a culture shock in Leafs Nation

Bob McKenzie
1/31/2010 5:11:34 PM
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If you subscribe to the theory that the team that gets the best player wins the trade, it's pretty obvious who won the seven-player blockbuster deal between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames.

That would, of course, be... the Flames -- because right here, right now -- the best player in that group of seven is none other than Ian White.

You were probably waiting for me to say Dion Phaneuf, weren't you?

Well, it's all a matter of how you frame the question.

Check out the stats - White has nine goals and 26 points and is plus-1 in 23:47 minutes per game compared to Phaneuf's 10 goals and 22 points, with a plus-three in 23:14 minutes per game. Check out the tape - while White hasn't been quite as good in his last 10 games for Toronto, pro scouts will tell you White's game has been equal to or superior to Phaneuf's in most every aspect you care to name, offensively or defensively.

But it must be pointed out that White is arguably performing to his absolute maximum right now. He's at or close to 100 per cent of his potential.

Dion? It's not even close. There is so much room for growth.

Most pro scouts would suggest Phaneuf is operating in the 50 to 70 per cent range. The question then becomes, will he get there? To 100, or close to it, that is. Or maybe even more importantly, does he really want to get there?

Calgary had to make this deal, and could make this transaction, for a number of reasons.

The Flames desperately needed a centre who could provide an immediate offensive boost as a playmaker and Matt Stajan will get that opportunity, lining up alongside Jarome Iginla and Dustin Boyd on the team's No. 1 line. Streaky scorer Niklas Hagman will give the Flames another gun and get his chance to contribute immediately on a line with countryman Olli Jokinen. Jamal Mayers will go into the Flames' hopper of hard-working fourth-liners. The infusion of the two offensive forwards will also help fill the void with longer-term injuries to David Moss, Nigel Dawes and Craig Conroy.

Mark Giordano's emergence on the Calgary blueline, coupled with White's addition now, more than offsets the loss of Phaneuf, both offensively and defensively.

The Flames simply could not maintain status quo because their mix simply wasn't right. They had to work too hard to score goals and had no choice but to change things up. This new mix will give them a better shot at generating goals.

Long term, it's possible the Flames may not have as much to show for the Phaneuf trade as now. Stajan may walk to unrestricted free agency this summer. Mayers, too. White is a restricted free agent and whether the Flames sign him or not means they have an asset that belongs to them no matter what. Hagman has another two years left, but if Phaneuf stars for the Leafs for many years to come, this could be one of those deals where the Flames have not a lot long term to show for it.

Although it should be pointed out that in addition to the tangible assets Calgary received from Toronto, more than $4 million in available cap space also came the Flames' way and they are now positioned to make more moves should they deem them necessary. That factor cannot be overlooked.

As for the Leafs, this is all about Phaneuf and whether he's able to advance his game or if he even thinks he needs to improve it. That, apparently, may have been an issue in Calgary.

Those who watch Phaneuf regularly say he continues to struggle in terms of being able to play the game without the puck. And that when the Flames leaned on Phaneuf to be better defensively, he bristled at the notion that he needed to change his game. Some might say it's an ego issue, that Dion is happy being Dion and with how he plays and doesn't like being told otherwise. Others would say he's simply not good at that defensive aspect of the game and what you see is what you get. Others think in a less stringent defensive environment, where his strengths as an offensive defenceman and huge physical presence will be accepted and accentuated as is, that he will flourish and make the necessary adjustments to play a more complete game.

Toronto is banking heavily on it being the latter.

Adding a good penalty-killing forward like Freddie Sjostrom, who is under contract for another year at the modest price of $750,000, won't hurt the Leafs and neither will adding a decent blueline prospect like Keith Aulie, who played so well with Tyler Myers at the 2009 World Junior Championship.

But it all comes back to Phaneuf, and whether he brings an ''A'' game to the Leafs. The potential is there, few doubt that, but is the will there to be the complete package? Or is being Dion good enough for Dion? Because if it is, that's not good news for Toronto, because being Dion right now isn't appreciably better than Ian White.

As for Toronto's deal with Anaheim, it's fairly easy to break down.

The Leafs needed a goaltender, of that there is no doubt. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is on hard times but if there's to be a renaissance, it's going to happen being reunited with GM Brian Burke and more importantly goaltending guru Francois Allaire, to say nothing of the obvious chance to re-claim No. 1 status in the NHL.

It might work. It might not. But it's worth a roll of the dice. And for those who point to Giguere's $7 million salary next season with a cap hit of $6 million next season, consider the Leafs just got out from under Jason Blake's remaining two years with a cap hit of $4 million per year even though Blake will actually be paid just $3 million each year. So it's a financial wash, just a little stiffer hit next year and a lot more cap room the season after that. In any case, there's no real risk.

In the short term, the Leafs are going to have a really difficult time scoring goals. They're convinced that if Giguere and Phaneuf play as well as they can, the team could improve and challenge for a playoff spot. That's a nice theory, but taking Stajan, Hagman and White out of the equation suggests otherwise.

It all just keeps on coming back to Phaneuf, and not in the short term. Over the remaining four years of his contract - after this season - Phaneuf really needs to be the Norris Trophy candidate force everyone thought he was going to be. If he's committed to being that, or trying to be that, which wasn't happening in Calgary, then the Leafs will make out just fine on this trade. But if it's a discussion point as to whether Phaneuf is actually better than White, then that would speak volumes.

The other aspect of today's blockbuster wheeling and dealing by Burke is that the Leaf GM is affecting a culture shock on his moribund hockey team, and that's never a bad thing.

If nothing else, Burke and Calgary GM Darryl Sutter have provided us all a reminder of what it used to be like in the NHL, taking us back to the good, old days when managers weren't afraid or restricted from taking a high dive into the deep end of an icy pool.

Bob McKenzie

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