I don’t think there’s much debate that at the time of the Dany Heatley deal, Ottawa was thoroughly fleeced. Heatley was a prennial all-star, a cornerstone of the franchise, and the perfect trigger-man for the team’s other big-ticket player, Jason Spezza.
The return was underwhelming, if not quite Luongo-for-Bertuzzi bad. Milan Michalek was seen as a good all-around player with pedigree, albeit one with injury concerns and signed on a contract that escalated each year. Jonathan Cheechoo was a good team player but a reclamation project, and was soon given up on. (His buy-out cap hit is still on the books in 2011-2012.) The 2nd round pick was useful insofar as it got the team some deadline assistance, but is long-gone. In return, San Jose received a bona fide scorer, even if he couldn’t replicate his 50 goal days playing alongside one of the league’s best playmakers.
I still remember the day the trade came down, and thinking there was no way Murray would have agreed to such a lopsided return. Then, as is usually the case with Twitter, the story was verified by about 700 additional people, and I went for beers.
It’s all about timing, and the fact that Ottawa’s window of contention was slammed shut that much faster while San Jose went to two Conference Finals in a row will always skew this trade in the Sharks’ favor. We also can’t ignore that Cheechoo cost Ottawa millions without bringing much in the way of value.
But two seasons later, and the deal isn’t looking quite so horrible anymore. Milan Michalek has really come into his own this season. At a very reasonable $4.3 million cap hit, he’s on pace for 47 goals and 67 points, and he plays in all situations. He’s becoming a leader, both on the ice and in the dressing room. And he’s a steadying presence no matter where he’s placed in the lineup, unlike Heatley, who was seen as someone who had to play with either Spezza or Alfredsson to make use of his ability to find open ice.
Dany Heatley, on the other hand, is on pace for 20 goals and 47 points, which would be a career low. He’s making a whopping $8 million this season, with a cap hit of $7.5 million. The thing is, Minnesota isn’t a high-scoring team, and Dany Heatley is still playing close to 20 minutes a night. They also happen to be tops in the league right now, sitting above the ultra-competitive Western Conference and playing stellar hockey.
Ottawa has earned its wins this season by overcoming its terrible defense and outscoring the competition. Minnesota has won through a stingy, system-wide defensive strategy. While Michalek has overtaken Heatley’s point-scoring potential, determining who is the better player, and thus who won the trade (2011-2012 Edition) has a lot to do with who has the better two-way game.
Michalek’s On-Ice CORSI rating is 6.50, with about 15 minutes of even-strength ice time a game. Reasonable, but not amazing, reflecting the tendency for Ottawa to give up a lot of shots. Heatley’s, however, is -10.08 with about the same amount of ice time. Part of this is Michalek’s unreal shooting percentage through the first half of the season (20%!). Part of it is just that Heatley, well…sort of stinks.
CORSI and point production aren’t the whole picture of course, but they are preliminary indicators. And if Heatley isn’t scoring, it also doesn’t look like his defensive game is making up for it. The Wild are winning despite Dany Heatley, not because of him, and with three years left on his deal one has to wonder if Ottawa got out from under a boondoggle of a contract. Which brings us to the other factor in Ottawa’s advantage, which is the cap space.
If you argue that the team’s run to the Finals in 2007 was an anomaly, and that they should have started a rebuild soon after because of Muckler’s mismanagement of prospects, then perhaps Heatley doesn’t even receive the contract offer from Ottawa. But he did, and the fact that they could move one of their big-ticket contracts is a huge plus. That San Jose chose to move that contract too is telling. Were Ottawa to try to move Heatley today, they might not have even landed what they got in 2009.
Ottawa’s performance over the last two or three seasons has been hugely disappointing, but it’s very gratifying to see a team with the sixth lowest payroll in the league overperform the way they are. Milan Michalek is a huge part of that process, and it took Dany Heatley to get him. Sens fans can take some comfort now in feeling like they may have come out ahead after so much of hearing how they were screwed.