The larger story is that Heatley's Denis Lemieux moment is a call for Senators fans to do some fact-facing. Accepting what is gone is gone, as a sports-liker, is never easy. It wasn't for a Toronto Blue Jays fan in the mid-1990s. The Senators had their shot at the Stanley Cup, in 2003 losing to New Jersey in Game 7 of the conference final and in 2007, losing to the Anaheim Neidermayers in the final. It looked good, there was so much promise, so much excitement, but it's over.
The Senators are at the start of new cycle. Parting with a winger who has a $7.5-million US cap hit, doesn't want to be play in the East and whose 5-on-5 effectiveness dropped markedly from the '07-08 season to this one which should end tonight will help wipe the slate. Otherwise, they could become Tampa North, with too much payroll tied up in three forwards.
It seems best to put the rational ahead of the emotional. Bigger and better media outlets have the emotion covered. Some would say you're better to save your venom. Reading Heatley wants to leave the Senators so he can "get more of an opportunity to play his style of game," (Bruce Garrioch, Sun Media) is a major eye-roller: What's your game again, Mr. Heatley, scoring 40 goals for an also-ran team? However, he is somewhat overrated. Sending Heatley out-of-conference would go a long way toward keeping expectations low for next season, which let's be honest, could be the best thing for the Senators.
This is a franchise in a bit of an uproar. President Roy Mlakar, the Mighty SOPO himself, is probably headed out the door, two years after John Muckler was ousted. They have had three coaches in two seasons. The first two, in hindsight, were in over their heads. John Paddock, let's face it, is a hockey lifer whose best skill is staying employed. Craig Hartsburg is a fabulous junior coach, not so much at the NHL level. Cory Clouston seems to have the chops but needs time and needs the longer-tenured players to opt in to what he's doing. Meantime, the owner, Eugene Melnyk, has taken some hits to his reputation in the business world. No wonder the commenters over at Sens Chirp see the sky is falling.
"If this story is true, I think we're looking at the implosion of the Ottawa Senators.The jumping-off point is that the Senators fanbase is going to have to shift their thinking. The belief in past years that the Senators had more talent on paper than the teams they were losing to in the playoffs was the ultimate vanity. The NHL is now a salary-capped league. The new rules are finally allowing skilled players to do their thing. It's a great leveller.
"Quite frankly, if you have talent, why would you want to be part of the Sens? The owner is always under investigation with the law. The GM has never won anything. The new coach is more or less unproven. The stars are constantly bashed by the inept media. And the long-time President, who has a great reputation for doing a good job, is about to be thrown out.
"In short, in Ottawa of late, the talent gets thrown under the bus while the mediocre elements are rewarded."
Coaching probably is no more important than it was in 1999, but there's a different type of coaching which has become more valuable. The game seems to have swung more toward younger career coaches who prepare their teams well and are mentally limber. Mike Babcock, who's about to win his second Stanley Cup in succession with the Red Wings, is the prototype. Clouston, the 39-year-old boy wonder, fits right in with Dan Bylsma (38) in Pittsburgh and Peter DeBoer (40) in Florida.
Clouston has put in the time learning his craft and rates every chance to prove he can coach a NHL team. He needs a longer grace period than 34 games in a low-leverage situation, which is what he got after Hartsburg was canned. He also needs to have the longer-serving Senators onside or else he won't be coach of anything. Just now on Prime Time Sports, Nick Kypreos was saying that Heatley feels Clouston had it in for him. Out of sight is out of mind, so it's better not to have him around, possibly griping to impressionable reporters that Clouston isn't doing things the way other coaches did when the Senators were winning more.
The reality is the Senators must start rebuilding, even if Eugene Melnyk would sooner buy a CFL season tickets than say it. Conventional wisdom might say having a 50-goal scorer is important. There's research which shows that Heatley struggles at what is truly important in the NHL, being able to play both ends of the ice at even-strength. Throw in a damaged and/or non-existent relationship with the coach and well, it's better to get him out of here..
The way it might work, if the Senators are smart, is that they trade Heatley. It's better to be doing it now. After all, you have a $7.5-million player who wants out in a league where more and more teams are feeling a financial crunch. Also, Darryl Sutter is still in charges of Heater's hometown Calgary Flames, and wouldn't that be hilarious if Heatley goes from not being able to play for Clouston to playing for
(Keenan's not coaching in Calgary, or anywhere. Nor is he selling real estate in Vancouver. That's another Michael Keenan.)
Trade Heatley. Everyone writes the Sens off for 2009-10. They try to play an aggressive forechecking game, similar to the one Bylsma has installed in Pittsburgh. The media in Ottawa have always shown they will go along to get along, so Clouston can win in the court of the public opinion while the franchise tries to get some stability among the highers-up with a new president and/or general manager.
Meantime, Heatley will get the treatment any player who has made it known he prefers anyone else's company to the their exclusive company. However, sometimes it is true. There will be questions about how long Jason Spezza will be for Ottawa, although he's younger than Heatley and a playmaker is harder to find than a finisher. One irony is that Daniel Alfredsson will probably be able to remain captain of the Senators for as long as wants. Three years ago, there were people who wanted to see him traded after the playoff loss to Buffalo and his slow start the following season.
However, instead it's Heatley who seems set to leave, Spezza who could be part of the solution and Alfredsson who is a Senator for life. Point being, Heatley going might be necessary. He's a good finisher down low, but he's not exactly Mike Bossy. That reference was to make sport of the big brains who believe, perhaps in jest, the Senators could ship Heatley to the Islanders for the No. 1 overall pick so they can draft John Tavares. Even Leafs fans find that funny. If only Mike Milbury was still running the show down there, eh?
The Senators can play this well and in time, rise again. Meantime, as is the nature of the game for small-market teams, their fans will have to accept you won't have a shot every season. The Senators had their time in the NHL sun. The '07 playoff run, coming closer to the Cup than Ontario's other NHL team has since the end of the six-team days, was the most exciting time in Ottawa probably since the 1995 Quebec referendum.
However, those days are done. Onward and upward.
(For a good laugh, here's Denis Lemieux:)