This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Hossa-Heatley trade. While Yashin for Chara and the pick the Sens used to draft Jason Spezza will remain the greatest trade in team history, Hossa-Heatley is perhaps the most important, franchise defining move and subject to considerable revisionist history by Sens fans.
It’s not that people weren’t excited about the trade at the time, far from it. While a vocal minority panned the move, Heatley was young and exciting and certainly a big ticket winger on the same level as Hossa. Hossa was beloved in the capital, fans chanted his name after every goal. He was one of the team’s most exciting players and a big contributor during the 2003 playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals. But the P.R. machine got to work quickly; conventional xenophobia emerged in reaction to the move – Hossa was a soft European who couldn’t handle the tough play of the NHL playoffs while Heatley was a gritty Canadian kid. It was easy to paint Hossa as greedy, the stereotype of the mercenary European player still fresh in the minds of Sens fans after several rounds of contract disputes with former captain Alexei Yashin.
Heatley didn’t exactly fit the gritty Canadian player mould either. He scored more from the hash marks than the crease, and came with his own considerable baggage. He had asked for a trade out of Atlanta earlier in the summer, troubled by his responsibility for an accident in September 2003, in which Heatley drove too fast, crashed his car, and his passenger and teammate Dan Snyder died as a result. But just as quickly as Hossa was painted as greedy, Heatley’s past was glossed over by many Sens fans. He was Ottawa’s first true Canadian star. Spezza would quickly join Heatley, but didn’t have a breakout season until paired with the winger, and Wade Redden, who would have his best season statistically in 2005-06, was overshadowed by Zdeno Chara. Ottawa’s best, Yashin, Alfredsson, and Hossa, were all Europeans who had strained and difficult contract disputes with the organization in the past. Players negotiating with the tools available to them has for a long time been characterized as greed by fans and media alike. If playing the game right means measuring a player’s toughness on the ice, then playing for the love of the game and eschewing monetary concerns is how to play it right off the ice in conventional Canadian hockey mythology. In contrast to Yashin, Alfie, and Hossa, Heatley had starred for Canada at the previous three World Championships as well as the World Cup in 2004 while recovering from serious knee and eye injuries. There was the prospect of cheering a Senator wearing the red maple leaf for Canada at the Olympics in 2006 with his arrival. He was also under contract for three more seasons. He was different in key ways that generated excitement and allowed fans to quickly move on from a summer of debating the merits of Hossa and the dollars he deserved.
Looking back, the money can’t be overlooked.
Hossa was frequently credited with being not only a great two-way player at the time of the deal, but Ottawa’s best player period. One of the top wingers in the league at the time, he matched the play of upper end comparables like Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier. The eventual deal the Sens and Hossa agreed to (3 years, $18 million) before reaching arbitration was fair in terms of his ability and what he was worth, but would prove difficult to accommodate in the new, salary cap world.
With the Senators hovering around the $31 million mark in salary and the newly instituted cap set at $39 million, Ottawa was right up against the upper limit with the Hossa deal. Had the case been decided in arbitration, the award could have been even higher and the team risked losing him as a UFA 12 months later. It wasn’t a salary considered in isolation either. Then Senators GM John Muckler had an eye on the following summer when star defensemen Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara could both walk as UFAs and winger Martin Havlat would need a new deal. The situation might have been even trickier had Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson not signed a 5-year deal after the 2003-04 season. Signed before the 2004-05 lockout, it was subject to a 25% rollback when play finally resumed the following season. After a lucrative $7.5 million signing bonus, Alfie was set to make just $4.66 million in 2005-06. Had Alfie signed another short term deal in 2004, he might have been deemed expendable in the post-lockout world as the Sens struggled to get both star wingers under contract. Had the Sens kept Hossa after signing him to that three year deal ten years ago, Alfie, signed long term and to an affordable deal for a star player, might have been appealing trade bait.
While the salary cap put teams on equal footing in terms of spending, it disproportionately affected good teams with young talent coming out of RFA years and moving toward UFA status. Teams like the Senators. Not only did the lockout wipe out a year of contracts for players like Hossa, it wiped out a year of RFA status, a year of team control. It was hard to plan long term with the looming lockout. While the league was pushing hard for a salary cap, what it would be set at was unknown and salary rollback wasn’t guaranteed. Further complicating the matter for the Sens was the team’s recent bankruptcy. Financial trouble had hounded the team since its early days and became acute in the years leading up to 2003. During the last few years of Rod Brydon’s ownership, the Sens often stuck to short term deals, affording the team financial flexibility in times of ownership and CBA instability. Simply put, it’s hard to lock up your young stars to affordable or near affordable deals when you can’t afford to pay them in the first place.
This trade has received a lot of retroactive criticism, but I wonder if it would be seen as a good bit of business, perhaps even prudent, if it was a move Bryan Murray had made this summer. I wonder how the move would be viewed today had it been made in the climate of analytics and a decade into the salary-cap era. At that point in their careers Hossa and Heatley were pretty close in terms of point production, but Hossa would have likely come out on top of the Corsi battle. Still, Heatley’s projected production at the time, in combination with the fact that Heatley’s cap hit was $1.5 million less than Hossa’s each season through the course of Hossa’s deal (which is the same amount the Sens saved on Hossa’s deal in real dollars each season by trading for Heatley), and some might conclude that Heatley might have been the better value in the restrictive early years of the cap system.
What pushes the deal over the top in the short term is that in addition to trading sniper-for-sniper, the Sens were able to offload Greg de Vries. The veteran defenseman was coming off a down year and was due to make $2.28 million in 2005-06 and was under contract until 2007. While that might not seem like a lot now, he was making more than every Senator not named Hossa, Alfredsson, Redden, Chara, or Havlat. In other words, he was making a lot for a defensive defenseman who failed to impress as a deadline pickup in 2003-04. With Hossa and de Vries in the lineup, it’s likely depth contributors like Chris Kelly and Christoph Schubert, as well as rookie standout Andrej Meszaros, would have been stuck in the AHL due to budget constraints/de Vries’ spot in the lineup. It’s always going to be difficult to give up a player of Hossa’s calibre, but to bring back a younger player with similar point production and strengthen your depth all while shedding salary isn’t a bad way to get out of bind.
If it’s hard to remember where the Sens were at in August 2005, those first two seasons with Heatley in the lineup seem equally distant. For all the longing for Hossa you hear now, things were considerably quieter when Heatley notched points in his first 22 games as a Senator (besting Hossa’s previous franchise mark by nine games), on the way to back-to-back 50 goal seasons and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. While Hossa put up similar numbers in Atlanta, it’s not like the Senators missed out on a terrific trade return when he was shipped to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline in 2008. It’s possible Hossa wouldn’t have jumped around so much if his faith in the negotiating process hadn’t been shaken by the Senators, but it’s also clear he wanted to win a Cup. After falling short with Pittsburgh in 2008, he signed a lucrative one year deal in Detroit that didn’t work out and led to a mammoth 12 year/$63.3 million deal with Chicago in 2009. The Hossa everyone regrets missing out on is the elder statesman Hawks version, with three Cups to his name and part of a modern NHL dynasty. That’s fair, he’s been a big part of Chicago’s golden age. What it illustrates the most though is Hossa’s legacy in the NHL is defined by his time Chicago now, his Ottawa years more footnote than main story.
It was always going to be tough to sign and retain that early-to-mid 2000s core in Ottawa. A perfect storm of bankruptcy, maturing talent, and a new (and by today’s standards, restrictive) salary cap, was always going to leave at least a few players on the outside looking in. That Heatley didn’t have the longevity of Hossa is clear. That the Senators gave up the best player in the deal is also clear. What might have been a win in the short term has been a loss long term. But keeping Hossa would have also altered the story as well and the results likely wouldn’t have been the fairy tale ending he’s enjoying in Chicago.