Monday, September 8, 2008

What to do with Alfredsson, Spezza, and Heatley

Sportsnet's Ian Mendes published a story on Monday about the CASH Line, and how--although Craig Hartsburg hasn't said what he'll be doing--both Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza expect that their line, usually filled out with Dany Heatley, will be split up to start the season.

The reasoning is obvious: By spreading out the most potent offensive threats into two lines, the Senators become a more difficult team to play against because their stars can't be easily targeted. It's difficult for any team to shut down the CASH Line completely, and I'd say the only team to really do so effectively were the 2007 Anaheim Ducks. Still, the fact remains that much of the Sens' scoring prowess has been heavily concentrated in that top line, and if falls off pretty quickly.

The Sens do have other offensive weapons. Antoine Vermette is a solid offensive player with tremendous defensive awareness, and his point totals have consistently climped to a career-high 53 points (24G, 29A) in 81 games last year. He should get plenty of second-line time this year to set a new career-high. After seeing his numbers fall off a bit last season, more will be expected from Mike Fisher, and he likely expects more from himself. Finally, many people are saying Nick Foligno has the abilities to be a point-producer in the NHL, so he should get the chance this season with a full year in the NHL.

Assuming the CASH Line is to be split up, there are four possibilites (and be sure to vote for your choice in the poll that is in the left info bar):
  1. Keep Spezza and Heatley together
  2. Keep Spezza and Alfie together
  3. Keep Alfie and Heatley together
  4. Spread them onto three different lines
I don't think the fourth option is really going to be tried, so I'll cross that off the list right now. That leaves three more possibilities.

Spezza and Heatley have obvious chemistry, and their point totals prove that. They play off each other's abilities, with Spezza setting up Heatley once he's gotten himself into a shooting position, and Heatley letting one of his one-timers rip. One problem with this is that Heatley changes his game when he plays with Spezza (and he has admitted as much, if I recall correctly), concentrating more on getting open and less on a puck-possession game that could make him more effective defensively. It also leaves Alfredsson as the offensive fulcrum of the other line, subjecting his 35-year-old body to the physical punishments of that role. It's not a point that is dealt with often, but Alfredsson's health has to be an issue of concern as he gets into the twilight of his career.

Secondly would be keeping Spezza with Alfredsson. This maintains the two puck-possession experts from the current CASH Line, and they would be filled out by a winger who would have to be able to turn pucks over and finish plays. It would allow the two to excercise some of their chemistry, and may allow Alfredsson to score more goals by setting up for passes from Spezza. Finding a suitable left-winger for this line would be difficult, though; Vermette is not suited to what would be asked of him, and Jarkko Ruutu is probably not skilled enough offensively to make it work.

The final option would be my preference, and I would try it were I given the head coaching job with the Senators. Alfredsson and Heatley have some chemistry, even if they may not be the soulmates that Spezza and Heatley apparently are. When Heatley is playing his hard, possessional, forechecking game--the one that made him so effective with Rick Nash and Ryan Getzlaf in this summer's world championships--his performance is at its finest. Alfredsson wouldn't be the premiere skilled player on the line, so he'd be comfortable in not being overly targeted by defencemen. And the centreman could be Vermette, if you're looking for an offensive player with defensive abilities, or even Chris Kelly, if you're looking for a defensive player with offensive abilities.

However it happens, the individual players may not do as well offensively than they would as members of the CASH Line. I do believe that they are more than simply the sum of their parts. For the greater good of spreading the offensive production and adding more defensive responsibility, though, splitting up the CASH Line could very well help the Senators' bottom line.
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