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Thank Goodness for the Heat-Lie

A special treat, in light of the Dany Heatley soap opera: a guest column by Lord Bob:

This isn't an article about soap operas, about lists of acceptable teams and young men who change their minds and organizations with no idea what's going on in front of them. Everyone else in the universe will be writing about that. This is an article about those horrible hours before midnight on Canada Day, Eastern Standard Time, when it looked like it was only a matter of time until Dany Heatley was an Edmonton Oiler.

From the millisecond I saw it, I hated it. Heatley is, when his head is the right way, a terrific player. A defensive liability but enough offense that he gets positive results. We've all heard the stories about Heatley's me-first attitude, and we've all seen how that can affect a hockey team. Certainly, if he does decide to come to Edmonton at some point, at least a few fans and maybe a few players are going to be looking askance at his public apathy towards Edmonton. But put him with Horcoff and Hemsky, and the Oilers' top line is much better. There's no way to dispute that and I don't plan to try. There are a few teams that would be much, much better with Dany Heatley in the lineup: the possibility of a Phaneuf for Heatley trade is one that could keep me awake nights.

The Oilers aren't one of those teams. With a salary cap that is either stable or trending downward, adding a player at a $7.5 million cap hit until 2013/14 is only a good idea in a very specific set of circumstances. If you're one superstar away from the Cup, go hog-wild! But the Oilers problem was never the first line. Say what you will about Dustin Penner, but for all the Baconators in the dressing room the man can play hockey in both sides of the rink, and with Horcoff and Hemsky those guys could drive results. They weren't Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Hossa, but they weren't the reason we missed the playoffs.

The critical flaw for the Oilers over the last two seasons was that there weren't enough NHL players. We all remember the glory days of Allan "Hot Doorknob" Rourke, the occasionally embarrassing and always entertaining Steve MacIntyre experiment, the premature promotion of talented but raw youngsters like Theo Peckham, Craig MacTavish trying to make Liam Reddox into the next Fernando Pisani simply because he didn't have the horses, and Andrew Cogliano taking twenty draws a night and losing seventeen of them because who else could we have used? Surely the way to get into the playoffs is to sand over the parts of the roster that were costing us hockey games rather than loading up the first line and hoping that Ales Hemsky could play forty minutes a night eighty-two nights a year without his ACL snapping off so hard it broke somebody's sternum.

What we have here is a difference between two competing schools of building a team: the Detroit Red Wings school and the Toronto Maple Leafs school. The Detroit Red Wings school could just as easily be named after the New Jersey Devils because they both pull the same tricks. They develop, by and by large, from within, and resist the urge to yank a kid up before he can play with the men no matter how nice his shootout move is. When making a trade or (particularly) chasing a free agent, they largely ignore the big names and instead focus on overlooked journeymen, snapping them up early in the free agency period before they're in demand and getting quality NHL veterans at solid, league median prices. They load up on assets, even if that means stowing guys in the minors who might deserve NHL time, because the more chips you have in play the more flexibility you have. And when somebody became too expensive to fit in, they were bid adieu.

The Toronto Maple Leafs concentrate on spending too much money on players because you've heard of them. Other famous emulators of this model include the Ottawa Senators, who had a couple good years thanks to some good contracts but went insanely top heavy when they decided to try and keep everybody and have since fallen into obscurity.

No team in the salary cap era has made it to the Stanley Cup finals on the basis of a top line of hired guns and an absense of depth. There will be injuries, there will be times when your top line is dog tired and you have to put out the third or fourth line to contain the other team's stars in a critical situation, there will be those shifts after a powerplay where Crosby and Malkin come over the boards and you're left with trying to pin them back with your lesser players. Well-built teams sacrifice a few goals from a famous top line in favour of a lot of goals from the other three, because no matter how good a player is he will spend more of the game on the bench than on the ice.

An Oilers acquisition of Heatley would run directly contrary to this principle. Even eliminating Penner's salary (nearly as bloated as he is), the Oilers would add millions to their cap hit for the long term. With Grebeshkov still unsigned and no goaltender, Edmonton would have to fill their lineup card with rejects, minor-leaguers, and anyone who will sign for spare change and bellybutton lint. Meanwhile, the Oilers would take a net loss of two NHL players on the deal, giving them a couple more holes to fill. Rob Schremp's fans could rejoice - if he didn't make a Heatley-era team, he should just give up and start selling used cars - but they might change their tune in a hurry when their hero was playing with Johnny Pohl and Tim Sestito. In exchange for gutting the bottom half of their lineup, the Oilers would get the upgrade from Penner to Heatley, which would be good for a net gain of, what, fifteen goals? If that?

Nobody likes seeing their city and their team shown up by a prima donna, and there's no doubt Heatley's wishy-washiness is making Edmonton look bad. But better egg on our faces than a team that's worse off and locked into a moody, overpaid player for the long term while the cupboard of depth players and prospects is suddenly much emptier.

(Unless he goes to Calgary for Dion Phaneuf, in which case all bets are off.)