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In the 21st century, where salary caps influence every decision and professional hockey is in a rapid state of evolution, that old glorified standby, the blockbuster NHL trade, has mostly gone the way of the dodo.

That's why yesterday's deal between the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs stands out - as much for the names and players trading places as for the eye-popping scope of the deal.

Calgary gave up one here-to-fore untouchable core player, defenceman Dion Phaneuf, as part of a seven-player exchange that brought them four useful - but by no means extraordinary - parts.

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Officially, it went down this way: Calgary acquired Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan and Ian White from Toronto. In exchange, the Leafs received Phaneuf - at 24, a Norris Trophy finalist two years ago - plus Freddie Sjostrom and defensive prospect Keith Aulie.

By making this move (and a second transaction that reunited him with goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère), Leafs general manager Brian Burke showed the heart of a poker player by going all-in on a high-stakes gamble that could remake the organization's culture in his own tough-as-nails image, or backfire in spectacular fashion. It all depends upon how well Phaneuf develops as a player and how he adapts to life in the fishbowl atmosphere of Toronto, the centre of the hockey universe.

As anyone who's watched Phaneuf play this year will attest, he remains a decided work in progress.

Despite his many physical gifts - excellent shot, big-time hitter - Phaneuf is prone to the same defensive gaffes he made in his rookie year, when he was a Calder Trophy candidate and scored 20 goals. A succession of coaches has tried to play Phaneuf with a succession of partners, with limited success. Roman Hamrlik, now with the Montreal Canadiens, was probably the best fit.

That Phaneuf's development had seemingly stalled in this, his fifth NHL season, is why the Flames determined they could part ways with him - that and his $6.5-million (U.S.) salary, which they were committed to pay him for the next couple of years.

Still, Phaneuf's upside remains vast. He was on the short list for Canada's men's Olympic hockey team, and as recently as two years ago, made the NHL's first all-star team.

Who, among the players coming Calgary's way, possesses a comparable pedigree? Not Hagman, a serviceable NHL forward, of which there are many in the NHL. Not Mayers, who wasn't doing much for the Leafs and wanted out anyway. Not Stajan, who may have a scoring touch around the net, but isn't really strong on the puck and was frequently in and out of coach Ron Wilson's doghouse. And while Ian White provided credible defence for the Leafs this season, no one imagines him as having top-pair potential - which Phaneuf does. Phaneuf may not evolve into the next Scott Stevens - but he at least has the skill set to possibly become a dominant player, under the right sort of tutelage.

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Will he get that in Toronto? That remains to be seen. But he is a potential building block; nothing coming Calgary's way is remotely comparable.

Fact is, it was logical for Calgary to trade from its position of strength - a deep defence - in order to fill in gaps elsewhere. Just because the Flames rolled over Edmonton 6-1 Saturday night doesn't mean they have completely righted the ship just yet. The pressure is on - to make the playoffs and then win some when, or if, they get there. If Stajan is the answer to the interminable question of who plays with Jarome Iginla, and if Hagman can fit with fellow Finn Olli Jokinen on a second scoring line, then Calgary may get a short-term offensive boost.

Still, the last time the Maple Leafs and Flames made a deal of this magnitude occurred almost two decades ago, when Calgary surrendered Doug Gilmour to Toronto in a 10-player swap that started both franchises down separate paths. For Toronto, long a laughingstock, Gilmour's acquisition helped the Leafs turn the corner towards respectability. For Calgary, a team that had been one of the most successful in the 1980s and was only three years removed from a championship, it started them on a slow steady decline to mediocrity.

It is hard not to see yesterday's exchange between the same two teams as déjà vu all over again.

That Sutter would give up on Phaneuf at this comparatively early stage in his career was the most surprising part of Blockbuster Sunday. That he couldn't pry loose a core asset in exchange was probably the most disappointing.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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