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Top Shelf: Pick ’em – Heatley or Kessel?

Boston's Phil Kessel has 66 goals in 222 career NHL games. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Boston's Phil Kessel has 66 goals in 222 career NHL games. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/NHLI via Getty Images)

Two snipers, one question: Dany Heatley or Phil Kessel?

Who would you take?

With NHL training camps inching closer by the day, there are, by my math, roughly 90-plus goals worth of uncertainty still floating around out there in the unhappy Senator and unsigned RFA Bruin.

Will one or both be wearing new uniforms when the season starts? Probably not. It seems more certain with each day that Heatley will begin the year in Ottawa and, despite some draft pick shuffling in Toronto, Kessel remains a valued commodity in Boston.

GM Peter Chiarelli – though clearly not enamored with the stance Kessel’s camp has taken – has stated all summer his first preference is for the youngster to stay with the B’s.

But just as the Irish refuse to let the truth get in the way of a good story, we won’t allow a great debate to slip by just because neither player is necessarily on the move.

So, who’s it going to be?

At face value, the inner GM in me screams Heatley. He’s 6-foot-3, has back-to-back 50-goal seasons on his resume and is still only 28.

But don’t go offering up three quality NHLers just yet.

Heatley is set to make an average of $7.5 million over the next five years – if you want a guy who bags 50 a year, you’ve got to shell out some dough.

Kessel, it’s reported, is sniffing around for about $4.5 million a season. He won’t post a huge goal total this year because he’ll be out until November while his surgically-repaired shoulder heals.

But my guess is Kessel, who is six years Heatley’s junior, will be good for more than 40 goals a season over the next decade. With Joe Sakic now focusing full time on golf, Kessel and Philly’s Jeff Carter are vying for the title of most wicked wrister in the league.

So let’s assume the return on investment for Heatley is 50 goals for $7.5 million. Kessel, who had 36 goals in just 70 games last year, comes in at, say, 43 for $4.5 million after this injury-shortened year.

Now let’s see what that $3 million in savings will get you on the open market.

Mike Knuble, who has averaged just over 27 goals the past six NHL seasons, was snapped up for $2.8 million by Washington. Alex Tanguay, a 70-to-80 point guy in the right scenario, will play for $2.5 million this year in Tampa Bay.

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So the original question is actually a bit misleading. It’s not merely Heatley or Kessel, it’s Heatley or Kessel plus one more productive NHL player.

There’s also the issue of how many goals Heatley would score if he wasn’t playing on one of the best lines in hockey, as the trio of him alongside Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson most definitely has been since the lockout ended.

Debates are usually about identifying differences, but there’s also a lot of symmetry between the two men in question. Both endured incredible personal grief early in their careers, Heatley dealing with the fallout of being the driver in an accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder, while Kessel faced the gravity of being diagnosed with testicular cancer at the tender age of 19.

Both have also done things to incite pondering about their commitment. Heatley’s reputation has taken a beating this summer for his seemingly selfish trade demand, while Kessel was once billed as a surefire first overall pick before a lazy approach caused his stock to drop. The Bruins eventually took him fifth overall in 2006, but, particularly through his first two years in the league, Kessel wasn’t exactly in danger of being nicknamed Charlie Hustle.

Putting aside the parallels, it comes down to whether you want a big sniper who has already shown his full potential or a fast, burgeoning one who has yet to hit his peak.

Toss that extra $3-million player in the mix and my scales tip in favor of taking Kessel.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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