As Dany Heatley made his way back to the city where he enjoyed his greatest NHL successes, it was impossible to ignore the fact that he had become a shell of his former self. Twice a 50-goal man with the high-flying Senators teams of the mid-2000s, Heatley returns to Ottawa Wednesday as a fourth-liner for the Minnesota Wild. The only thing more dramatic than his drop in production this season is a $7.5-million cap hit that makes him arguably the highest-paid role player in the league.
Heatley scored just three goals during the opening 22 games and none were of much consequence for the up-and-coming Wild. The first was into an empty net, the second provided insurance during a 4-0 victory and the third came Tuesday in Montreal with just 1.3 seconds remaining in a 6-2 loss.
Yet, despite that slow start, during a recent visit to Minnesota it was hard to find anyone around the Wild who didn’t have praise for the 32-year-old. A player who once forced trades out of Atlanta and Ottawa is now being held up as a model teammate—largely because he hasn’t complained or sulked since coach Mike Yeo dropped him to a line with Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell earlier this month. “He’s handled it very well,” Yeo says. “I think he understood that he wasn’t on top of his game and he didn’t in any way want to be a distraction. He didn’t take it any type of negative way.”
Coming off surgery over the summer to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, it’s difficult to view it any other light. This was supposed to be a bounce-back year for the veteran winger. Heatley felt rejuvenated at the start of training camp and told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he would be “very disappointed” if he didn’t score at least 30 goals. Barring a dramatic turnaround, he’ll likely end up with about half of that total.
The biggest challenge for Heatley is finding a way to contribute in a severely diminished role. While he still sees time on the Wild’s second power-play unit, his current linemates at even strength have combined for just 47 career NHL goals. And for the first time since being drafted second overall by the Thrashers in 2000, Heatley is playing fewer than 18 minutes per night—with his five worst NHL games in terms of ice time all coming in the past few weeks.
Despite the extremely slow start, Yeo believes Heatley will still end up with about 20 goals when all is said and done. “He finds a way to get chances,” the coach says. “He’s just very smart to put himself in a position and very smart to find open ice, where he’s going to get an opportunity to shoot. Usually with a guy like that, once one or two go in they to start come a little bit more in bunches.”
More than anything, those around the Wild feel that a bad start simply snowballed on Heatley. He didn’t score during the opening 10 games—the longest drought of his NHL career—and he’s been unable to get things on track since. “The first four games I would say that he had probably had five or six ‘Grade A’ chances,” Yeo says. “Certainly if one of those goes in then the way things have gone could be drastically different than they have. Like any player, confidence plays a big part into it.
The decline in Heatley’s performance couldn’t come at a much worse time. He is currently playing out the final season of a $45-million, six-year extension that he signed with the Senators back in 2008 and isn’t going to have a long list of suitors when free agency arrives if this continues. Never a swift skater, Heatley’s biggest weapon has always been a hard shot that no longer seems as effective as it once was. His current 7.9 shooting percentage is about half his career average. It’s reasonable to wonder if age and injuries have simply caught up to him. “Obviously he knows that this is a big year,” Yeo says, “and he put some big expectations on himself and all of a sudden things weren’t going well and he found himself chasing a little bit.”
Where exactly that chase leads him is anyone’s guess.
Heatley’s lowest times on ice during his 12-year career: