As everyone in Ottawa knows, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk will be joining GM Bryan Murray at Scotiabank Place today, in order to officially set out contract negotiations prior to Heatley's impending free agency in the summer of 2008. While it likely isn't their first meeting (Murray has mentioned casual talks with Heatley's agent J. P. Barrie over the summer), it is certainly an indication that the negotiation is far more than casual at this point. What makes today's meeting particularly intruiging is Heatley's refusal to discuss his contract during the season, preferring the business-side not interfere with the chemistry in the dressing room or the performances on the ice. Heatley has set a deadline of the start of the season, October 3, after which point he will not negotiate until the end of the season. Should a contract not be hammered out in the next week, there will only be a three-week window for negotiating with Heatley before he hits the open market, should the Senators go as deep in the playoffs as they are expected.
Heatley, one of the games premier forwards and almost without doubt the best goalscorer in the game, is negotiating from a position of strength whether he wants to talk contract today, in December, or on June 30th. His back-to-back 50-goal, 100-goal seasons put him in a category with the likes of Pavel Bure and Mario Lemieux historically. He has yet to miss a game in a Senators uniform, lead the playoffs in points (alongside linemates Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson), and was named to the first all-star team as a right wing (and very nearly made it as a left wing), in addition to receiving Hart, Selke, Pearson and perhaps even Conn Smythe consideration. In just two seasons as a Senator, he holds more Senators records than anybody but Alfredsson. The statistics are all very impressive, no doubt. While they're amusing to disport in defending Heatley's elite status, they almost become troubling when it comes time for contract discussion.
The simple fact is, whatever Heatley wants, he will get. If he wants league maximum or very close to it, there are teams across the continent who will make room for him. Vancouver, Phoenix, Florida, perhaps even his childhood favourite team St. Louis - all could become instant playoff contenders (if not Stanley Cup victors, in the case of Vancouver) with the simple addition of Heatley. While he doesn't have the game-changing ability of a Sidney Crosby, he far eclipses the likes of this year's free agent crop, who earned as much or more money as the elite players of the game on the open market, even if their play on ice will be leave much to be desired when their overbloated, overlong salaries are considered. When a 13-goal scorer makes $7 million, Heatley will be given league max without the blink of an eye.
If Heatley wants to stay in Ottawa, he need only name the price, and Eugene Melnyk will ensure it happens. If Heatley wants to leave, there is not a team in the league that won't be looking over their rosters and seeing if they can't make room for him.
The question then becomes, what does Heatley want to do? This is the most intruiging part of the whole negotiating process from my perspective. The numbers have meaning from a cap perspective, of course, but it is Heatley's intentions and desires that reveal the stature of the Ottawa Senators franchise among the elite players of the hockey world.
Heatley's acquisition by the Senators came under atypical circumstances, to say the least. Without regugitating a story everyone knows, it was pure coincidence that the Senators' troubles in negotiating a cap-favourable contract with Marian Hossa occurred coincidingly with a troubled young star's request for a change of scenery from a city that had treated him with nothing but forgiveness and charity, but a city nonetheless in which Heatley seemed incapable of returning to form as both a hockey player and person. In a way, the trade fell into former Senators GM John Muckler's lap, but the consequences remained all the same. The Senators signed Hossa to a 3-year $6 million deal in the morning just minutes prior to a scheduled arbitration hearing; by afternoon, Hossa was a Thrasher and Heatley was a Senator.
Some make an argument that Heatley was "rescued" or "resurrected" by Ottawa, and as such owes the team and city something of a discount, or favour. Others argue that it was Heatley (or Waddell) who rescued the Senators - they were in a difficult financial situation, and Heatley's trade request fixed a problem. Either way, whatever the team or the player "owed" each other (as if such a system of imbalance could exist), it's been more than paid back in spades at this point. Ottawa provided Heatley with an exciting, fresh and young Stanley Cup contending team. They gave him one of the league's premier playmakers to centre him and one of the league's best two-way players and captains to anchor the other wing. They gave him a city that breathes hockey and idolises its players, but respects their privacy all the same and, aside from a few quack reporters, lets the issues of Heatley's past be simply that, issues of the past. At the same time, Heatley provided the team and the city with excitement, and probably the biggest star this city has ever seen. He burst out of the gate in the pre-season in 2005 and never looked back. He set Senators records for point streaks, goals in a season, points in a season, points in a playoff run. He represented Canada at the Olympics. He achieved the highest individual honours in Senators history, being named to the first and second all-star teams. He has brought us 8-0 victories against the Maple Leafs and hat tricks against the Buffalo Sabres and 26.3 seconds remaining goal-tying goals in the playoffs. He finished 4th in league scoring two seasons in a row. Including the playoffs, he is behind only Joe Thornton in points since the lockout. No one has more goals than him in the last two seasons. He made the pizza goal six instead of five. Even if Heatley walks away after this season, there can be no hard feelings about the entertainment he brought to this city; about the memories he provided us and the joy we experienced every time he stepped on the ice.
Heatley owes nothing to Ottawa. He is a player whose promising career very well could have been over at 23, and no one would have been surprised. Some would say that, since Ottawa was the city and team where he experienced his playing rebirth, he should show some loyalty. But can't the argument be made that he knows the fragility of a player's career? That if it wasn't the emotional scars left by the crash, that it could have been the knee injury sustained in the accident that ended his career? Or the near-blinding eye damage he suffered during the lockout? A player cannot and should not be vilified for looking out for his best interests.
At the same time, there is something to be said for happiness. If an extra million or two playing in a market where they don't care quite as much about you or your team, where your name doesn't get so elatedly cheered at the home arena or so viciously booed on the road, where a playoff series victory is paragraph at the back of the sports section and a regular season loss is never mentioned at all, if that would leave Heatley equally satisfied, then what can be done. If taking an extra million more than "necessary" in Ottawa equals the loss of Chris Kelly, or Patrick Eaves, or even Jason Spezza, and possibly precipitates the decline of the Senators from Stanley Cup Finalists to April-golfers, then that's unfortunate for us.
The realistic "right thing" in the eyes of a Senators fan, is a contract in the $7-8 million range, for a term of 4-6 years (the unrealistic "right thing" being that he plays for us for free out of the goodness of his heart, for ever and ever and ever). According to various reports from the likes of Darren Dreger and Bruce Garrioch, the expected starting demand from Heatley's camp is an $8.5 million offer, presumably over a six year period or more. It would be a shock if his demands did not also include a no trade or no movement clause. According to Garrioch, the Senators' expectations rest in the $7 million, 6 year range. The two sides are really not far apart, and if Heatley is really interested in staying in Ottawa, there is no reason something can't get done before Wednesday's debut against the Maple Leafs.
Still the question remains: not can the Senators afford it, not can Heatley get more elsewhere, but does Heatley want to be in Ottawa, and how much of the Senators competitiveness is he willing to sacrifice to make it happen?
I hope there is no fighting tonight.....
3 years ago