A year ago, Danton Heinen came out of left field in the BCHL (and the fourth round of the NHL draft) to post one of the most productive seasons of any freshman NCAA player not named Jack Eichel.
His 16 goals and 45 points in 40 games a year ago for Denver University highlighted his fine puck skills and fine vision/offensive hockey sense. He’s a good skater, though lacks a top gear that would make him even more of a consistent threat on every shift. The biggest knock on Heinen a year ago was his average size and though he’s still listed at 161 pounds on some rosters, in speaking to him and others in the Bruins organization, he’s north of 180 pounds now. He’s still got some growing and physical maturing to do, but don’t be fooled by the outdated 160-pound measurement.
This season, it’s been tougher sledding for Heinen offensively. In 18 games, he has five goals and 11 points. Folks who just look at the stats line are starting to ask questions about that, so this is a quick post to provide some observations from several games I’ve seen from him on film. Interestingly enough, he had no points in either game, and even more intriguing- he was in my opinion, the best DU Pioneers player on the ice. I also recently interviewed Jay Pandolfo, Boston’s player development director, and he said the same thing- Heinen’s play has not been an issue at all, even if the pucks aren’t going in for him.
In his most recent weekend series against Notre Dame (officially ties), the Pioneers carried the offensive play, outplaying and shooting the Fighting Irish by a wide margin in both games. Thanks to Notre Dame goalie (and Sabres prospect) Cal Peterson, DU scored just three goals on 95 shots in both games. Give Peterson credit, because anything less than the stellar performance he brought with him from South Bend, and the outcome would have been different.
On Friday evening Heinen played extremely well, officially credited with five shots out of DU’s 50, but he also had multiple shot attempts- close to doubling that total in shots either blocked or ones that missed the net. Several of his shots on goal were of the high danger variety- Peterson made a great save to deny him on the power play and then another of Heinen’s shots squeaked through his pads but died on the goal line. The play went to review but was called a no goal. On one opportunity, he got behind the Notre Dame defense and broke in alone on Peterson, only to ring the puck off the post on the blocker side. Heinen’s line had 23 shots between them, so that unit was a going concern all night and only thanks to the Notre Dame netminder was the damage nearly negated (Moore scored on a flukey goal that hit Peterson’s mask, then pinballed into the net off his defenseman in front).
It’s easy sometimes to get caught up in a player’s statistical success, and Heinen would probably be the first to express his disappointment that the offense isn’t happening for him the way it did a year ago, but the good news for the player is that he’s still working hard and creating scoring chances. Losses of upperclassmen like Joe Laleggia, Daniel Doremus, Ty Loney and Zac Larraza haven’t helped much, either. Heinen is currently skating on a line with junior Trevor Moore (who is an undrafted free agent and looked real good against Notre Dame) and freshman Dylan Gambrell (named NCHC freshman of the week), and they are DU’s most productive unit, with all three currently in the team’s top-4 for scoring.
In the fast food mentality of modern sports fans, it is easy to look at Heinen’s lack of production and simply assume that he is playing poorly, but that is not the case. While there is a certain bottom line to everything in that Heinen is inviting criticism for not raising the scoring bar in his sophomore season, there are other factors in play. Denver as a team is collectively struggling to score and sometimes the blind luck of doing everything right on a play but still not having the puck go in for you play a part. Hovering around .500, the top scorer, Gambrell, has just 15 points in 18 games, so offense is at a premium. On a different club, and given the quality chances I’ve seen Heinen generating this year, it is a reasonable assertion that he would be faring better in that situation.
This is often lost on the stat watchers who aren’t seeing many (if any) of the games and instead of seeking to find the right context, engage in the easy way out of assuming a player is not performing. In the eyes of Pandolfo and DU head coach Jim Montgomery, Heinen is doing the little things and as long as he keeps his high effort levels up, he’ll eventually be rewarded with production much like Matt Beleskey has in Boston.
In the end, Heinen’s best attributes- his soft hands, his superior vision and three-zone game and work ethic are all prized assets for any pro. It might mean the B’s will want him to return to DU for one more season in lieu of signing this spring, but the down numbers are not a major cause for alarm.