Saturday, November 3, 2007

Heatley should play with Fisher

First off, besides maybe St. Louis and Lecavalier or Cheechoo and Thornton, it can hardly be argued that any duo in the league has better chemistry than Heatley and Spezza. Spezza is a #2 or #3 set-up man, and Heatley is a #1 and #2 sniper. They feed off each other like no other, and probably put up better numbers than either player ever will playing with any other player. But Heatley is a player who adapts to his linemates. We all know that when he plays with Spezza, he floats and disappears, then appears out of nowhere to strike. From an offensive perspective, there is perhaps no better strategy - witness him leading the league in goals since the lockout, and coming fourth in points. Including the playoffs, only Joe Thornton has scored more points than Dany Heatley over the past three seasons.

But as we witnessed in the Finals, perhaps we need a bit more versatility, physicality and visible competitiveness from a player who will be our highest paid man and go-to guy over the next half-decade. Can he bring this added edge with Spezza? Possibly, but the only time he's ever done it consistently was during Spezza's injury last season. During that time, he adjusted to playing without Spezza and became the catalyst on his line, instead of a passenger.

So far in 2007-08, he's only played two games without Spezza, and I can't say he's been any more dominant or noticeable than usual outside of his offensive numbers. But offensively, with Robitaille and Fisher as his centres, he's marked 1 goal and 3 assists over that time.

The thing is, Heatley has a tendency to mimick the style of his linemates. Spezza plays a finesse, pass-heavy, offensive-minded style that looks for the perfect goal. Fisher plays a physical, speedy, forecheck-minded game that's more intent on maintaining pressure and possession than making the highlight reels, and is equally content to drive the net and get garbage goals. With our mind this season, not so much on obliterating the opposition offensively, but instead preparing for the hard work, pressure and physical presence that will be required for the post-season, I think it's in everyone's best interest if, perhaps, Heatley is centered by Fisher at ES. They're already 4-on-4 partners, and have shown great chemistry in the limited time they've had together. Playing with Fisher this season, Heatley netted the OT goal against Toronto, the PP goal tonight against Boston (Fisher was a distraction in front of the net), and set up Fisher's game-winner tonight. Last season, Fisher was stellar in the two games he played centering Heatley and Alfredsson against the Isles and Flyers around Christmas, before going down to injury.

Heatley just seems to have a different mindset when he plays without Spezza. More hustle, more relentless at both ends of the ice, a better playmaker, and just generally more involved in the game. He could still play with Spezza on the PP (although, even with a small sample size, perhaps he's better suited to play with Fisher there too, considering the team's poor PP to start the season!), but maybe it's finally time to fully investigate whether splitting up the duo is not in the best interest of the team. It's been talked about, it's even been done for a period in February and a game in June, but maybe it's time to get Heatley in the playoff mindset and have him focused, not on the hat-trick, not on the Rocket Richard, but on mimicking the intensity of a centreman like Fisher and bringing that all-around, two-way, ferocious-on-the-forecheck game we've only seen glimpses of in the past.

Heatley is going to be one of the highest paid players in the league, and the highest paid in the league. We can settle for him being a "mere" one-way forward who leads the league in goals and competes for the Art Ross. This is hardly a bad thing. But we've got a guy who has potential to be a beast, so let's groom him to be just that. Put him into the full-time PK rotation, change his ES mentality by putting him with a player like Fisher, and give him the opportunity to be a Hart challenger and the guy who will lead us to a Cup, instead of merely an amazing, but secondary, contributor.

The impact this will have on Fisher should be considered as well. Fisher is now our second line centre in all manners now, even if he has been our #4 forward in terms of ice-time over the last few seasons, he is expected to increase his offensive output with his increased paycheck. However, without providing him with superior players to those who he has played with over the years, where is this extra offense magically supposed to come from? If he gets to play with a guy like Heatley, who will alter his focus to become a playmaker instead of simply a sniper, Fisher doesn't have to be the primary set-up man on his line. Heatley can set him up for his great shot unlike any player (beside Alfredsson) who Fisher will have the opportunity to play with. You want Fisher to get 30 goals, 60-70 points, putting him with a Heatley-calibre player will give him a far better shot than Foligno and Neil.