It’s been written more than once on this blog that it’s so important to allow some sort of gestation time before drawing conclusions on trades, free agent signings, coaching changes etc within the world of professional sports. And a shining example of this right now is the current level of play being shown by Milan Michalek of the Ottawa Senators, acquired in a deal that was pulled off only to appease Dany Heatley’s desire to leave the Nation’s capital and part of a return that was deemed to be far less than market value at the time.
As the story goes, it was back in the summer of 2009 – just two years after helping guide the team to the Stanley Cup Finals & after having signed a 6 year, $45 million extension with a no-trade clause to remain with the club long term – that Heatley demanded to be traded. Heatley reportedly became unhappy with his role in Ottawa during the 2008-09 season, especially after the Senators made a coaching change. Having scored 50 + goals and 100+ points in each of his first 2 years as a Senator, his ice time and production dipped under new head coach Cory Clouston, and he finished his last season in Ottawa with 39g, 33a and a -11 rating, his first dip under 0 since the Thrasher days.
In September of ’09, GM Bryan Murray was able to find a trading partner in the San Jose Sharks, and Heatley was sent to Cali for Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek & a 2nd round pick, which was later used to acquire the services of Andy Sutton for a total of 18 games. (This deal came after Heatley had used his no-trade clause to block a deal that would have sent him to Edmonton – more on that later). Michalek was 24 at the time, a five-year veteran of the NHL who had spent his entire career up to that point with the Sharks after being drafted in the first round (6th overall) in 2003. Michalek had put up 23 goals and 34 assists with a plus- 11 rating in 77 games the previous season. Cheechoo was a former second round (29th overall) election by San Jose in 1998, and had 12 goals and 17 assists with a minus- 3 rating the previous season. He had, however, scored a career & league high in 2005-06 when he put up 56 goals and 37 assists in the regular season (thanks to the addition of Joe Thornton to the team). Any way you looked at the deal, one would have to be very optimistic to believe that either of these guys (or even both together) could replicate the success that Heatley had achieved in Ottawa.
Initially, Heatley thrived as a Shark, one part of what was widely believed to be the best line in hockey during the 2009-10 season. He, Thornton & Patrick Marleau dominated that year, and all three were named to Canada’s Olympic team largely due to their success together in San Jose. Heatley scored 39 goals and 82 points, and helped the perennially underachieving Sharks reach the Conference Finals, only to find himself in the penalty box as the Blackhawks scored the series winning goal (in Game 4) en route to their Cup victory. In 2010-11, Heatley’s production reached a career low, as he would only score 26 goals and 64 points (as well as only 9 points in 18 playoff games) in what would be his last season in San Jose. This past summer, in one of a pair of deals made between San Jose & Minnesota, San Jose took advantage of a window of opportunity in his no-trade clause and Heatley was sent to the Wild for Martin Havlat. In 30 games so far this season, Heatley has only 9 goals, but the team as a whole has surprised and they are tops in the NHL with 43 points; so far so good for the Wild, but time will tell whether Minnesota can maintain this early level of success and if Heatley can get it done when it counts – in games 83 and beyond.
On the Ottawa side of things, to say that Cheechoo was a bust is a massive understatement. He scored only 5 goals in 61 games as a Senator, and spent part of the year down in the AHL before being waived during the following off season. Michalek, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story, and his play this year may indeed be tipping the scales in Ottawa’s favour. During his first 2 years as a Senator, Michalek battled injury, missing 16 games each year, scoring only 40 goals and 67 points total – not quite the kind of numbers Healtey had put up playing with the likes of Jason Spezza & Daniel Alfredsson. This year, however, Michalek is healthy and showing some of that jump that Ottawa banked on when they acquired him. Through 30 games, Michalek is tied for the league lead in goals with 18, and (despite only adding 6 helpers onto his point total), he has helped the team to climb within 1 point of 8th in the East, a place no one thought they would be even back in October.
This, along with the fact that San Jose has already moved Heatley elsewhere, is causing many to rethink their initial assessment of the trade back in ’09. True, Michalek still has a ways to go in terms of keeping up this production over the course of a full & healthy season. However, the fact that, unlike Heatley, he appears to be tracking upwards in terms of overall production (not to mention the fact that he is 3 years younger than Heatley) is a good sign for the Sens as they move forward in their rebuild.
Look, it’s still too early to draw any ultimate conclusions. Maybe Michalek gets hurt this week, he once again gets tagged with the ‘injury prone’ label, and he never reaches the 30 goal level in the NHL. Maybe Minnesota keeps it going and Heatley comes up big in the playoffs as the Wild shock the world and win the Cup. Heck, maybe Jonathan Cheechoo resurrects his career and comes up with another 40+ goal year with another team (don’t count on that one). But as it stands right now, it’s hard to argue that Bryan Murray didn’t manage to get good value in a tough spot, and that’s something that couldn’t be said even at the end of 2010.
End note: What’s even more interesting is that fact that this might not be the case had the much more ‘popular’ deal with Edmonton actually gone down. This trade would have seen Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano & Ladislav Smid sent to Ottawa, none of which come even close to matching the kind of impact that Michalek is making in Ottawa. Penner has since been dealt to the Kings and has put up a total of 4 goals in 37 games, and Cogliano (now a Duck) & Smid continue to underachieve as a former 1st round picks. Just proves once again that it takes time for these situations to shake out.