Is the Heatley deal actually paying dividends for Ottawa?

The Ottawa Sun earned a lot of respect during that period for their nuanced, measured response to a contentious issue.

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.

9 thoughts on “Is the Heatley deal actually paying dividends for Ottawa?

  1. The best thing about the Heatley trade was that it kickstarted the rebuild and forced this franchise to take a hard look at itself. It just seems like systems, player developement and scouting have taken central stage with this franchise, where previously the focus was entirely on whether the core could still win. If the Heatley trade didnt happen, we would be Calgary right now- and no one wants to be Calgary (also: Jay Feaster is terrible).

    • Feaster IS terrible, I agree, though better than Sutter. What Sutter did to gut that team and replace it with Leafs…and not only Leafs, but 2nd tier Leafs…I’ve seen better trades on NHL ’04 Be a GM Mode.

      I still think Ottawa kept the dream alive post-Heater at least one season too long. They did sign Kovalev at $5M, after all, and traded Vermette for Leclaire. What kind of team does that except one that thinks they can still hack it? It’s only once they really bottomed out that they considered a rebuild.

      • Brohamz,

        I totally agree that the Heatley fiasco kickstarted the rebuild but I think we only see that clearly now because it’s been a few years. Though I too wish Kovalev wasn’t signed and that instead of trading for Pascal LeClaire that Bryan Murray unplugged his rotary phone, had a fine single malt, crawled into the tub, read some Jane Austin and called it a day. That didn’t happen and I guess in trying to take off my armchair quarterback glasses (thing that exists) off for a minute, that still feeling the pressure of losing the cup?….eeeeee I can see why maybe Murray (Melnyk) still believed that a line up with Spezza, Alfredsson, Phillips, Kelly, Fisher, Michalek, Karlsson, Neal, Ruutu yeah even Kuba, Regin and Foligno I guess and…ugh..this hurts but…Kovalev (who was ostensibly going to be nails in the playoffs, right guys?) and a LeClaire that wasn’t supposed to end up a claymation skeleton could make some noise in the playoffs. Especially that line up bolstered by the likes of pretty damn good players like Cullen and Sutton. I’m not saying something like “had Kovalev and Michalek been healthy” as I still think they would have likely lost to the Penguins (though to their credit they took it 6 without those guys). I’d rather the Sens have rolled the dice and kept the picks. Try not to hold me over the fire as im not MADE of revisionist history (and who is in this workaday world) I might have the line up a touch off, but compared to other teams that make the playoffs in the NE like Montreal or Buffalo … I don’t think those teams in that time were much better than that Ottawa squad. I mean, better goaltending for sure but each were a bit weaker up front. Also, Boston was less than awesome at the time if I recall correctly. Note, I only said make some noise in the playoffs, in other words “hack it”…anyway, I think the fact that the team was thoroughly dismantled so quickly after these failures says a lot about Ottawa’s management. To go from a perennial FA deadline shopper to high end draft pick stockpiler after a couple of seasons in the weeds? Makes me feel like a lucky fan when I look at, as mentioned, the situation in a place like Calgary (floundering since cup final appearence in TWO THOUSAND FOUR). Sometimes I remind myself that this rebuild is still very early in the going as well and you know, maybe they finish 8th this year but 14th next. The advantage is that at least we know what this team is. Stick with the plan Murray(s) and keep eating your vegetables Mika, Jakob, Robin et al.

  2. I definately agree that Ottawa didnt do it soon enough, and its true that they did continue to swing for the fences. But I think if Heatley was still on the team the narrative would be “they have good players that are underacheiving” instead of “this team doesnt really have any good players”.
    God bless Melnyk but hes certainly crazy enough to believe that Pizza line = contender no matter what.

    • I remember Melnyk’s post-Finals letter to fans about winning the Cup and hoarding it for years…I could hear the entire fanbase saying “Eaaaaaaaaasy there, slugger,” at the same time.

  3. “Were Ottawa to try to move Heatley today, they might not have even landed what they got in 2009.”

    Then explain how San Jose got more for him in 2011 than Ottawa did in 2009…

    • You consider Martin Havlat – 9 points in 17 games, on pace for 4 goals and 40 points, $5M a year and a world of injury problems – more than what Ottawa got? San Jose traded one risky, expensive player for another. At least Ottawa got a couple of players who may have paid off, and a draft pick. There was a time when Heatley could have yielded a package of assets. Now, it’s just trading one lottery ticket for another.

      • Firstly, I would consider Havlat a massive upgrade over Heatley. 1) Because Havlat is not an alcoholic. 2) Because Havlat tries hard, plays a well rounded game, and fits SJ’s needs much better. (and gives them $2,5M of cap room).

        Secondly, you have to look at the two deals together. It was really all one trade that was split up for a reason I’m not going to post on here. Coyle and Burns is a massive overpayment for Setoguchi, so I think you can figure out that the two deals were actually together.

        Either way, yes, I consider the Sharks being able to unload a drunk, lazy asshole
        for a top-six forward and cap space better than Ottawa being forced to take Cheechoo’s ridiculous cap hit back (buy-out is still on their books), and a player that has played well for 2 months out of the 3 years he’s been here.

        Let’s agree to disagree and we’ll say that the two returns were equal. The Sharks still did much better in my opinion when you consider that Heatley has done nothing but get worse since he arrived in SJ. They were trading a 26 goal scorer, Ottawa was trading a 39 goal scorer only two years removed from back to back 50 goal seasons. That’s like buying a stock, watching the company have two shit years, then selling the stock for the same or higher price.

  4. It would have been nice to snag one of those nice young players in Vlasic or Mcginn plus Michalek. But unfortunately, Murray was freaking handcuffed by Heatley; he was so undervalued that Murray had to take some decent scraps instead of the full ribeye…

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