Before something can be rebuilt, it needs to be torn down.
General manager Lou Lamoriello continued that process with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday when he traded captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators in a nine-player blockbuster.
"This gives us the opportunity to do things," Lamoriello said. "But it also gives us the opportunity when some of our younger players that are coming at the end of their entry-level contracts, who we have high expectations for, to be able to sign them. This was a transaction that certainly wasn't for today."
No, it was clearly for tomorrow, a tomorrow that has become much easier to shape and mold because of the work the Maple Leafs have done over the past calendar year to free themselves of three contracts that were once considered untradeable in a salary cap world.
A few weeks prior to Lamoriello's arrival in Toronto last July, the Maple Leafs traded Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins. A few months before that, they traded David Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets prior to the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline.
When you add the remaining five years on Phaneuf's contract after this season at a salary cap charge of $7 million per season to the contracts of Kessel and Clarkson, the Maple Leafs shed just over $19 million annually in contractual commitments to those three players through at least 2019-20 while taking on little financial burden in return (all contract information is via GeneralFanager.com).
In other words the land has been cleared, and the foundation for the future can begin to be laid.
"Dion is going to leave a hole in our lineup, there's no question," Lamoriello said. "But I think as I've said continuously, what the overall plan is, that when you have an opportunity to do this, [you do it]…this is a transaction that I think we had no choice with."
For Phaneuf, forwards Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey and Ryan Rupert, and defenseman Cody Donaghey, the Maple Leafs received defenseman Jared Cowen and forwards Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and Tobias Lindberg, along with Ottawa's second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Neither team will retain salary in the trade, which Lamoriello said was an essential element.
Cowen, Michalek and Greening are each signed through next season for a combined salary cap charge of $8.7 million, so in the short term there is no real cap savings for the Maple Leafs. But it is the long-term relief Toronto was after with building blocks Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri set to become restricted free agents on July 1, two of 15 expiring contracts currently on the Maple Leafs roster.
Still, shedding Phaneuf's contract didn't make trading his captain any more palatable for Lamoriello.
"It certainly wasn't easy, that would be an understatement," he said. "Because all of the right things come into place, especially when you've got a quality individual. But unfortunately this is part of the business; you have to separate the person and the player when you make these types of decisions, and you have to make sure that you separate your heart and your head and you have to make the decisions with your head."
Senators general manager Bryan Murray was also thinking with his head in acquiring Phaneuf and his contract.
Murray looked at his team and saw a need for a veteran presence on the back end, one that shoots from the left side and can play top-4 minutes. He found all of those things in Phaneuf, who will slot in to the left of Cody Ceci, playing behind the top pair of Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot.
For years, Phaneuf was criticized in Toronto while playing some of the most difficult minutes in the NHL, miscast as a No 1 defenseman and paying the price for it.
He won't have to play that role in Ottawa, and Murray hopes it will be the change Phaneuf needs to play to his potential.
"I don't think I've heard one thing other than he's a real good person, he competes, he wants to win," Murray said. "He's been in a tough environment, he's been judged very tough in the environment he's in. We don't expect him to come in and be a savior. We expect him to come in here and just be the hockey player he is."
Murray said finding a left-shooting defenseman with experience and someone to play left wing in his top-6 forwards were two priorities he identified a year ago. He was hopeful that some of the Senators' younger defensemen could allow him to concentrate on finding a forward, but that hasn't been the case.
"The way our [defense] played this year, there wasn't a lot of growth there, there wasn't a lot of very good performances in a lot of games, so we had to address that first," he said. "So now that's been addressed."
Murray said the rest of the players he acquired Tuesday will not be playing for the Senators, with the possible exception of Frattin, and the focus now is to start a push toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Senators entered play Tuesday four points out of the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, but even if the acquisition of Phaneuf doesn't get them there this season, Murray believes there will be benefits down the road.
"I think this solidifies where we're going," Murray said. "I hope it sends a message to our group that we're trying to win here."
The Maple Leafs are hoping to send the same message, it just might not be intended for the players currently on their roster. The plan in Toronto is much longer term, and Lamoriello said every option is open to them as to how they go about implementing it, whether that means making a splash in free agency or taking a slower approach through the draft and development.
"I don't think there's any letter in the alphabet left out; I think it's A-to-Z," he said. "Whatever opportunity there is to make the Maple Leafs better certainly it will be considered. And if it's the right situation, it'll be done… There are so many different variables that come into it. I couldn't really answer what's going to happen next.
"I've always said we're going to have a five-year plan that's going to change every single day."