Ryan Miller, Tim Connolly

Ryan Miller responds to critics of his former teammate Tim Connolly

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In the grand scheme of things, the Toronto Maple Leafs made a reasonable gamble by signing Tim Connolly to a two-year, $9.5 million contract this off-season.

It’s true that the price tag is a bit steep, but the term is what makes the deal solid for both sides. Connolly gets more security than the one-year offers you’d expect him to receive elsewhere (and also might benefit from some extra time to get his feet wet in the hyper-scrutinized atmosphere that is Toronto) while the Maple Leafs limit the risk that comes with adding a notoriously injury prone player.

James Mirtle did a nice job of succinctly pointing out the pros and cons of Connolly. Even after throwing out some struggles with injuries in his earlier seasons, the shifty pivot missed 190 games since the lockout. With that risk comes a considerable reward, though; Connolly scored 250 points in the 302 games he managed to play in since the lockout.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Signing Connolly is a substantial risk and while my main question would be about his health, The Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons lingered upon character issues that have been raised. Simmons spoke with many who watched Connolly’s career, including the man who drafted him in 1999: Mike Milbury.

When you ask hockey people questions about Connolly the first thing they ask in return is: “Can we go off the record?” They want to tell you the story or at least their version of the story. They just don’t want their names attached to the Maple Leafs’ $9.5 million signing. Among the terms used to describe Connolly are: Soft. Sullen.

Difficult. Loner. Spoiled brat. Silver spoon kid. Entitled. Not a team player. Almost the opposite of what you expect most hockey players to be.

And one more thing: Supremely skilled.

“We thought he would be great for us,” said Milbury, who traded him after two seasons to Buffalo in a deal for Michael Peca after a trade with Boston for Jason Allison fell through. “It just didn’t work out for us the way we thought it would with Tim.”

Connolly’s time with the New York Islanders almost seemed too brief to truly gauge the man or the player, but he spent nine up-and-down years with the Buffalo Sabres. While there’s an impression that Connolly fell out of favor with members of the media and (in some cases) Sabres fans, his former teammate Ryan Miller stuck up for him  – and called out some “talking heads” in the process – on Thursday.

“It’s unfortunate the media hasn’t even let him get on the ice before starting with this crap,” Miller said Thursday.

“I think some people in the media [in Buffalo] felt like he owed them explanations beyond what he cared to share, and it just became a little bit of a vendetta. From my perspective, the only thing Tim doesn’t care about is what the talking heads think about him. He cares about hockey fans, he cares about winning and he cares about his teammates.

“In my book, that’s all that matters.”

When it comes to the thoughts of Toronto media types and Maple Leafs fans alike, Connolly’s successes or failures during the next two season will be all that matters.

It’s likely that he’ll line up on the team’s top scoring line with Phil Kessel, another talented player who has his fair share of critics. That combination could go either way. The two talented forwards could mesh beautifully, with Connolly setting up Kessel for a staggering amount of goals. On the other hand, Connolly and/or Kessel might run into another wall of injuries and raise the ire of fans in the process. There’s also the chance that they could experience a little bit of both.

Either way, the Maple Leafs are a tough team to gauge going into the 2011-12 season. If nothing else, they should be a lot more interesting to watch, though.

Maybe the Leafs didn’t want to trade Phaneuf, but they couldn’t afford to keep him

TORONTO, ON - DECEMEBER 19: Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs waits for a faceoff against the Phoenix Coyotes during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 19, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Coyotes 2-1 in an overtime shoot-out. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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The conference call was supposed to outline the reasons why Toronto traded its captain, Dion Phaneuf.

But instead, the man that orchestrated the deal — GM Lou Lamoriello — opened with all the reasons why the Leafs would miss him.

“I’ve been extremely impressed with Dion from day one,” Lamoriello explained on Tuesday, shortly after flipping Phaneuf to Ottawa in a blockbuster nine-player deal. “I came in with no preconceived notions, I really didn’t know what to expect other than what was hearsay at different times.

“He’s been impressive in every way whatsoever. And in the phone call I had with him, I expressed that and I meant it sincerely. He’s been a great leader, he’s handled every situation that’s been asked of him, and he’s going to be missed.”

But then, Lamoriello turned to the hard truth.

For as much as the Leafs liked Phaneuf and respected what he’d done in his six-plus seasons with the organization, he just didn’t fit anymore.

Phaneuf, who turns 31 in April, didn’t fit with the rebuild. Assuming the Leafs are two to three years away from being competitive, it’s hard to envision a (successful) blueprint in which a veteran defenseman — one that’s essentially been miscast as a No. 1 since arriving in Toronto — is pushing 35 while the team is on an upswing… while pulling in $7 million annually.

Which brings us to the next thing that didn’t fit in Toronto:

Phaneuf’s contract.

In the second of a seven-year, $49 million deal, Phaneuf would’ve been on Toronto’s books through 2021. That kind of term is an albatross, especially when the likes of Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri need new deals by next July, and prized prospects Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen are all due to hit restricted free agency around the same time.

Sens GM Bryan Murray acknowledged as much in his conference call, saying the Phaneuf trade “gives [the Leafs] relief in the latter part of the contract.”

Lamoriello also made mention of that fact, pointing out that a key to the deal was not retaining any of Phaneuf’s salary.

“The length of Dion’s contract and the amount of cap space that is there — where that would put us at a given time, certainly not knowing where the cap will go, this gives us the opportunity to do things,” he said. “It also gives us the opportunity when some of our younger players are coming to the end of their entry-level contracts — who we have high expectations for — to sign them.”

In the end, the deck was just too stacked against Phaneuf.

The GM that acquired him (Brian Burke) and the one that extended him (Dave Nonis) are long gone, and the new regime made no bones about the fact that, for as much as they liked Phaneuf, they didn’t like his contract.

So, off to Ottawa he goes.

“This is a transaction, “Lamoriello said, “that we had no choice with.”

Related: For Sens, Phaneuf brings experience and ‘security on the back end’

For Sens, Phaneuf brings experience and ‘security on the back end’

OTTAWA, CANADA - APRIL 12: Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs passes the puck against Erik Condra #22 of the Ottawa Senators on April 12, 2014 at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images)
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If it felt like this morning’s Dion Phaneuf trade came out of the blue, well, it kinda did.

According to Senators GM Bryan Murray, talks only got “serious” this past weekend during a phone call with Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello.

“He called me about something else,” said Murray. “I brought up Dion’s name.”

The way the Sens had been playing, it’s no surprise to hear that Murray had been looking for a “little more security on the back end,” as he put it.

“You hear people talk all the time that we’re dreadful in our own end,” he said. “We haven’t been great. We’re getting better. This we believe will be a good addition. It’s about getting an experienced leader, good person, hard-working, competitive guy to add to the mix in our top four.”

Phaneuf is expected to start on the Sens’ second pairing with Cody Ceci. Ottawa’s top d-man, Erik Karlsson, typically skates with Marc Methot.

While Murray called the multi-player deal a “hockey trade,” he conceded there were financial considerations involved.

“It had to work financially for us, as well as for Toronto,” he said. “It gives them relief in the latter part of the contract, I suspect, and it gives us some working pieces to go forward with for the next couple of years.”

What do the Sens expect from Phaneuf?

“Just to be a solid person, player,” said Murray. “Come in and give a little experience to the back end. Play his game the way he plays it.”

“He’ll just bring, we hope, a presence to this organization,” Murray continued. “It appears right now that we’ve got a lot of young guys that are going to be fitted in and playing. Our depth and youth, it’s good. We just needed a little bit of help.”

One thing Murray doesn’t expect?

“We don’t expect him to come in here to be a savior. We expect him to come in here and just be the hockey player that he is.”

Ottawa plays tomorrow in Detroit, where Phaneuf is expected to make his Senators debut.

The Sens and Leafs play March 5 in Toronto.

No hearing scheduled for Abdelkader after Barkov hit

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There’s no disciplinary hearing scheduled for Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader following his big check on Florida’s Aleksander Barkov last night, an NHL spokesman has confirmed.

The incident, which occurred early in the second period, left Barkov woozy and forced him from the game entirely. Abdelkader wasn’t penalized on the play — that, along with the hit itself, infuriated the Panthers and head coach Gerard Gallant.

“It was a cheap hit, I don’t know how the ref didn’t call it,” Nick Bjugstad told the Miami Herald.

“I thought it was a cheap shot but the referees didn’t see it that way,” Gallant added, noting that Abdelkader “left his feet a little and got [Barkov] in the jaw.”

Abdelkader has run afoul of the Department of Player Safety before. He was suspended two games during the ’13 playoffs for a hit on then-Ducks defenseman Toni Lydman.

The Panthers are back in action tonight, as they take on the Sabres in Buffalo.

Detroit doesn’t play again until Wednesday, when it hosts the Sens at Joe Louis.

Dion Phaneuf traded to Senators

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07:  Jordan Nolan #71 of the Los Angeles Kings is knocked off balance by Dion Phaneuf #3 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at Staples Center on January 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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And this is why we listen when Bob McKenzie says something.

The Ottawa Senators have acquired defenseman Dion Phaneuf, forwards Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, and Ryan Rupert and undrafted defensive prospect Cody Donaghey from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for defenseman Jared Cowen, forwards Colin Greening, Milan Michalek and Tobias Lindberg, plus Ottawa’s second-round pick in the 2017 draft.

No salary will be retained by either team.

From the Leafs’ perspective, the trade provides even more cap flexibility for their rebuild. Phaneuf is signed through 2020-21 for a cap hit of $7 million; he’s entirely on Ottawa’s books now. As for the guys coming to Toronto, Michalek, Cowen, and Greening are only under contract through next season, for a combined cap hit of around $10 million. And according to the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch, both Cowen and Greening could be bought out by the Leafs this offseason.

The Sens, meanwhile, get to add a workhorse defenseman to a blue line that already includes Erik Karlsson. Plus, they rid themselves of some onerous contracts.