Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Hoserdome 2009: Clouston 1, Heatley 0, and why this works for the Sennies

Don't cry over Dany Heatley.

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.

"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."
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.

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 Mike Keenan Sutter.

(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:)


mike2006 said...

Mike Keenan is gone from Calgary... NO?

(please read last paragraph)

sager said...

Thanks for the reminder. I suppose I could joke that with the way the Flames handled it, announcing it in a press release on a Friday afternoon and then refusing to make a public comment until the following Tuesday, it was easy to have forgotten Keenan was kaput.

Hopefully the whole argument doesn't catch on a nail just because of that goof-up.

Dennis Prouse said...

I agree that this could be a blessing for the Senators. They have an opportunity to get out from under a brutal contract, and get younger in the process. Heatley's trade value will never be higher than it is now - despite the Senators' tough year, he was still in the top ten in goal scoring, and at age 28 a lot of teams would love to add his production to their roster.

Having said that, history suggests that the prime of his career only has another year or two to go. Once snipers hit about age 30, their production can go south in a hurry. Goal scoring in the NHL is generally a young man's pursuit, with a few exceptions here and there. At that point, they had better be able to check and make plays. Can Heatley adapt his game, or does he end up like Guy Lafleur and Denis Savard, guys whose games completely abandoned them after their 30th birthdays? All it would take is one bad year, and Heatley would be rendered completely untradeable with that albatross of a contract he has.

Spezza, OTOH, is two years younger than Heatley. More to the point, he is a playmaker, and generally playmakers last longer. (Adam Oates, for instance, was still dishing the assists right up to his 40th birthday, and I think Oates is a decent comparison to Spezza.)

Both Edmonton and LA will be keen to take a good look at Heatley, and both have young assets to ship back the other way. (Man, would Anze Kopitar ever look good in a Senators' uniform.) Murray Will hopefully avoid pulling a Kevin Lowe here, making a deal as quickly as possible as to avoid a prolonged media and fan circus. Wait for as long as you can, and then make the best deal possible. This is a chance for the Senators to rebuild on the fly somewhat, and they should embrace it.

Alex said...

If you think some GM is just going to take that contract out of the goodness of his heart you are sorely mistaken... There will be prospects and picks going along, and other salary coming back.

Dennis Prouse said...

Alex, 40 goal scorers do not grow on trees. Despite an off year, Heatley was still top 10 in goal scoring. Thomas Vanek is a decent comparison to Heatley, scoring the same number of goals last year and, not coincidentally, making about the same money. A Western Conference team can plug Heatley into their first line/first unit power play and, barring injury, be guaranteed of getting at least 40 goals out of him. Plenty of teams will be interested. Edmonton and LA seem like likely landing spots, as both have cap space and young assets to dangle in return.

Alex said...

Sure 40 goal scorers don't grow on trees but there is no guarantee he'll score those 40 goals in each of the next FIVE years he's signed. With the cap going down and how you can expect his production to go down as he gets older, you would have to be an idiot to send anything of value to ottawa in return for taking this contract.