(I'd put Kotalik in the title but that would screw up my alliteration, plus I'm trying to pretend the trade hasn't happened until the trade call is actually made...)
For the past three weeks, I have been refreshing TSN constantly after every loss, waiting for Darryl Sutter to make a big trade. I felt it was inevitable, to the point where I’ve had a blog in the queue about it for the last week (in fact, I planned to post it today). Today, I slept in late. I woke up and picked up my iPod touch. I thought, “Well usually Darryl wouldn’t make a massive trade unless it was after a loss, that’s how he’s operated in the past.”
I am still in shock. Even though I have been calling for Phaneuf to be traded for offensive help since November, the primary offensive names they got back, Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan, were never what I, or for that matter any Flames fans, imagined.
An even more unexpected trade happened later. By all indications, the Flames have agreed to trade Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the Rangers for Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins, with only the trade call pending. Now, there is a legitimate defense to be made for the Phaneuf trade, but there is none to be made for the Kotalik trade if it goes through. Media reports have said that the deal is being held up either by Kotalik’s no-movement clause, or the Rangers awaiting the Flames’ official sign-off on the deal. The consensus seems to be, from everybody, that this is a terrible, nonsensical trade for the Flames. For all the troubles that Jokinen has gone through this season, and all the rightful criticism, Kotalik would be an even worse fit. To boot, Kotalik has two more years at $3M a season on his contract (and that no-movement clause prevents the Flames from dumping him in the minors, which would have made the deal make some sense if it was possible). His cap commitment virtually erases one of the main benefits of the Phaneuf trade, which is future cap flexibility. The only way this deal makes sense is if it’s a precursor to yet another move, if the Flames intend to move Kotalik and/or other assets acquired for something else. But it doesn’t appear to be that way. I count myself in the group that is actually more outraged at this apparent deal than the mega-blockbuster, franchise-changing Phaneuf trade. But, because I had a good blog going until this horrid news broke, I’ll just proceed as normal dissecting the Phaneuf trade.
Reading every analysis of the Flames as they found themselves fighting for a playoff spot with one of the worst goals for in the league, and one of the best goals-against in the league, the common conclusion was that they needed to trade some defense for an upgrade on offense. Apples for oranges. Some wanted Robyn Regehr traded, others Cory Sarich, and some Dion Phaneuf. I was in the last group. I believed, and continue to believe, that Dion was worth the most of any of these players, and would therefore be most likely to solve their offensive woes in a trade. This begs the question, though, of whether it was really worth it.
A common reaction from many people seems to be: that was it? Armchair GM proposals involving Phaneuf always involved more marquee assets coming back the other way. A Spezza type, a Horton or Weiss, top draft picks and prospects. Never a basically overachieving third-line center playing the first line on a shallow offensive team and a 60 point, at best winger.
Then again, I think a majority of people never actually expected Darryl Sutter to part ways with Phaneuf. One of Sutter’s only developed drafted players, it was always said that Dion was like a son to Darryl. He rather aggressively denied any rumours for years, and they were plentiful. There were consistent rumours that Dion was a huge problem in the locker room. This year, the aforementioned trade rumours began to spring up, from all sources. It was reported that Dion wanted a trade, but judging from his very emotional reaction to the trade this morning, I get the feeling he did not. I think the trade blindsided him, that the divorce was initiated by Darryl. In classic Phaneuf fashion, he mentioned in his exit interview that he was “excited to become a Toronto Maple Leaf” many times, but especially telling was his quote about being excited to “go to a team that wants him”. I think it’s clear that this trade was done more to plug holes than anything.
Enough with the history surrounding the deal, time to analyze the assets. Matt Stajan is, at the very least, a decent 3rd line center who undoubtedly will provide an upgrade over Craig Conroy’s corpse. On an offensively shallow Toronto team, he was playing the top line and on pace for 60 points. I think his place in the Flames lineup depends on how things play out. As of now, I think he’s on the third line. If Olli Jokinen continues to struggle the way he has, Stajan could be upgraded to the top line. Which brings me to the next major forward in the trade, Niklas Hagman. I wanted the Flames to sign Hagman when he was an unrestricted free agent in 2007. He will be a top six forward here, it’s just a matter of what line. Hagman with Daymond Langkow and Rene Bourque is a decent second line. Some have made the argument that Hagman will revitalize Jokinen, based on the fact that they are both Finns and briefly played in Florida together. Personally I think this is a shaky argument, but Hagman should be a decent fit nonetheless. Jamal Mayers was essentially traded for Fredrik Sjostrom, which is a wash; Mayers won’t be here past this season. Oddly enough though, the player I am most optimistic about – can’t fully endorse this trade at least until I see these players in action – is Ian White. The Hockey News recently named White and Mark Giordano the two most underrated defensemen in the league, and now the Flames have both (on that note, Darryl Sutter admitted that Giordano’s emergence this year was a major factor in the decision to trade Dion). He has more points than Phaneuf this season on a far worse team and is a restricted free agent after this season. I am not saying he is better than Phaneuf obviously, but I think he can fill in decently.
Aside from Dion, the name leaving Calgary that’s generated the most outrage from Flames fans is prospect Keith Aulie. Since his underrated performance at the 2008 World Juniors, the 6’6” shutdown specialist had looked like one of the Flames’ top prospects. The general consensus seems to be that he will be an NHL defenseman, it’s just a matter of how good he will be. I was a big Aulie fan, and I personally was most upset about him leaving. However, just as in the big leagues, the Flames seem to be fairly deep on the farm in defense (and shallow in forwards). This seems to be the same justification that Montreal fans used to justify trading Ryan McDonagh to the Rangers in the Scott Gomez trade however. Just as with McDonagh, a 1st round pick, only time will tell whether Aulie will live up to his supposed potential.
Before the Ales Kotalik deal was agreed on, one of the main benefits of the trade seemed to be the cap flexibility it gave the Flames. It seems to me however that adding Kotalik’s $3M per year wipes that out. I was still figuring the cap ramifications out when the news broke but now it seems to be nullified. I’m not sure the Flames can re-sign Rene Bourque anymore though. Right now I’m too tired to work out the math behind the deals, but I’ll update if I figure something out.
Just over about 18 years and a month to the day that Doug Gilmour was traded to the Maple Leafs, putting the Flames on a steady spiral downhill which eventually resulted in a 7 year playoff drought, a trade of similar magnitude was made with the Leafs. I was less than two years old when the Gilmour trade was made and hence I don’t have the same scarring as much of the Flames’ fanbase. To me, the closest thing was Marc Savard for Ruslan Zainullan. But this was undoubtedly one of the biggest moves in Flames history; a pivotal moment; an era-defining move for better or worse. Eric Duhatchek and what seems to be one half of the Flames fanbase are noting the Gilmour-for-Leeman potential this deal has. I think it could either be the fix, both short and long term (if not necessarily due to the players received now) that the Flames need, or it could indeed be Gilmour 2.0. If it’s the latter, the Darryl Sutter era in Calgary simply has to end.
The Flames fanbase, based on today, seems to be fairly evenly divided on the trade. One half thinks it’s Gilmour 2.0, the other half seems to think it could be the answer. Me, I think it could go both ways but am reserving full judgement until I watch some of these guys in action. However what both sides most likely agree on is this: a prayer tonight that the Kotalik/Jokinen deal either falls through, or that it’s a much bigger deal than it looks (ie a precursor to something bigger that actually makes an iota of sense).
(Addendum: Dion could very well develop into a true star 2-way defender in Toronto. But those screaming that the Flames traded away a future Norris winner, I’m curious – how many do you really think he’ll win over the next decade over the likes of Keith, Weber, Doughty, etc? Not saying he can’t be a great defender, I just think it’s still overrating him a little bit…that being said, I fully expect Leaf fans to not be happy with his defense, at least to start; the question is whether he can turn that aspect of his game around…I have tickets to the game tomorrow against the Flyers which should feature all of the Flames’ new acquisitions. It truly should be one of the most fascinating games I’ve ever attended. What a strange coincidence that, two straight years, the Flames make a blockbuster trade and the day after, play the Flyers with their new look…I have to comment on the Leafs’ other trade, Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake for JS Giguere. It might be the best salary dump I have ever seen. I just don’t get it from Anaheim’s perspective. Wouldn’t it be better to simply buy out Giguere at the end of the year, or if you must trade him, just trade him and a pick for Toskala? What’s more, apparently the Leafs wanted to trade Jeff Finger instead but the Ducks asked for Blake, which makes it even more baffling considering the Ducks’ state on defense…there were many interpretations of the Dion trade. Pierre Lebrun virtually ignored the Flames’ side of the deal, Scott Burnside – surprise surprise – despised it from Calgary’s point of view and used the opportunity to heavily criticize Darryl Sutter, and the great Eric Duhatschek thought it was Doug Gilmour 2.0. However, I thought the best and fairest analysis came from Bob McKenzie. I swear I did not plaigiarize any of his ideas for this blog…when I wake up tomorrow, the Jokinen/Kotalik deal will likely be finalized. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, at the moment, I am much, much more outraged and shocked at that deal than the Phaneuf deal. The only explanation I can come up with for the Kotalik deal is that Jokinen and Phaneuf were both absolutely unbearable cancers who had to be removed as soon as possible. With Jokinen, the rumors have been there his whole career, Phaneuf, they have been circling the last two years and we may never know the truth. But if this is the explanation, the trades certainly make a bit more sense, and perhaps they will have a more favourable outcome than it appears at first on paper. I just do not want Kotalik on this team at all though.)