It's hard to say, without being in the Toronto Maple Leafs locker room the last couple of years, just how much of a issue there might have been with Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Were they truly poison like some in the media made them out to be? Or, were they just made out to be the escape goats because of their big salaries?
Phil Kessel was a really good player for the Leafs. The problem wasn't so much Kessel and more the fact that he had no help offensively whatsoever. There was never a top centre to give him the puck or a threatening second line to take some of the heat off of him. It did not help that former Leafs' GM, Brian Burke, traded away two first round picks that ended up being Tyler Seguin (2010) and Dougie Hamilton (2011), as well as a second round pick for the American winger. Seguin and Hamilton have turned to be pretty good players, even as both had been surprisingly traded away by the Bruins a few years later.
Dion Phaneuf came to Toronto in one of the bigger trades, in terms of players, in January 2010 from Calgary. Of the seven players that changed jerseys, only Phaneuf and Matt Stajan, who went to the Flames, are still in the league. Only a few months later, he was named captain.
On any team, the captain takes on an extra burden that others don't. You are expected to stand in front of the media day after day, game after game, win or lose, and answer the media's questions. Some can take it, others not so much. Perhaps, Phaneuf never should have been named captain in the first place. This was highlighted during a win in November 2014, when the team forgo what has become a tradition in most NHL rinks, the team coming to centre ice and raising their sticks to salute the fans. It was a bad look, which Phaneuf said had nothing to do with the fans booing or throwing jerseys onto the ice.
Regardless of how they were seen inside and outside of the organization, it was clear that both players needed to move on, for the best of the player and franchise. The Leafs, whether they want to admit or not, were bottoming out in an attempt to get the top pick in the 2016 draft, which they did, landing a generational player in Austin Matthews.
Kessel was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2016, landing in Pittsburgh, where Sidney Crosby was salivating at the thought of finally having a top winger on his line. He no longer needed to be the guy, playing behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Not to mention, he was no longer in the fish bowl that is Toronto, having his every step tracked, including whether or not he grabs a hot dog on his way from his condo to the Air Canada Centre.
Strangely, it didn't quite work out. Instead, Kessel found success in the playoffs with the now famed HBK line -Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Kessel. Kessel lead the team in scoring with 22 points, finishing fourth overall. The most important thing was that he was able to raise the Stanley Cup, getting the last laugh over all the fans and media who believed he was a problem for the Leafs.
A year later, Kessel has another opportunity to win the Stanley Cup again. He just needs to beat his former teammate in Dion Phaneuf and the Ottawa Senators. Toronto, somehow had managed to trade their former captain to the Sens in another large deal (nine players were traded) in February 2016. His contract was the big reason many thought Phaneuf would never be traded, and everyone was certainly surprised he ended up in the hands of the hated Senators. Though, I doubt there too many mans that shed tears for Phaneufs departure, instead strongly cheering it.
In Ottawa, Phaneuf has fit in well. This is Erik Karlsson's team, but Phaneuf is a well respected veteran, who was made an assistant captain. He doesn't have the same pressures that he did in Toronto, because he's the 2nd pairing, but also because Ottawa simply isn't Toronto. He's three wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup, something that was never a possibility with the Leafs.
Toronto needed to make the changes they did. So did Kessel and Phaneuf. The Leafs would never have landed Austin Matthews, a generational player, with the 1st overall pick in the 2016 draft if they hadn't. Matthews lived up to expectations and then some. He will be good (and likely, their future captain) for years to come. He's got help in Mitch Marner and William Nylander to name a couple of young, energetic players that help the Leafs make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout shortened season in 2013.
The team pushed the Washington Capitals in the first round before Washington got things done (at least in the first round) and eliminated the young and exciting Leafs. It got fans planning the parade route, which despite their talent, may never come (see Washington & San Jose). Kessel already got his; Phaneuf might be next.