When it was announced late in the evening of July 3rd, 2011 that Minnesota had acquired San Jose Sharks forward Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat, euphoria hit the State of Hockey. What an offseason it had been; not only in getting Heatley, but also acquiring Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a 1st round pick from San Jose, as well. Minnesota had a great draft during its host year, drafting an elite young blue-liner in Swede Jonas Brodin at 10th overall and highly skilled Canadian forward Zack Phillips with the pick acquired from San Jose at 28th overall. The top two forward lines were bolstered with the player acquisitions and the prospect pool was brimming with talent. Now it was time for the start of the season and it certainly looked promising for the team and its playoff hockey-starved fan base.
The first half of the 2011-12 season started out exceptionally well for Minnesota, the lines were clicking—even though the top line of Heatley, Mikko Koivu and Setoguchi didn’t perform as well as they had in the preseason—the young defensive corps was doing well and the tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding were absolutely lights out night in and night out. Then the injury bug bit—and it bit hard. Guillaume Latendresse, Koivu, Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard all spent significant time out of the lineup, to say nothing of defenseman Mike Lundin, who spent so much time out of the lineup he never fit in properly with the team. Backstrom and Harding also spent a little bit of time with injuries, which left the door open for the Wild’s top goaltending prospect, Matt Hackett, to come up and get some good playing time in a Wild sweater.
Long story short, Minnesota went from being the #1 ranked team in the NHL in December to the team with the 7th worst record by the end of the season. While drafting a top franchise cornerstone in stud WHL offensive defenseman Mathew Dumba was great for the future of the team, fans were disappointed with how poorly this gifted team performed. The fact of the matter was that they just didn’t have the depth needed to succeed. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher addressed that this offseason, shoring up the team’s forward depth with the signings of Torrey Mitchell, Zenon Konopka and Jake Dowell. Added to an already gritty bottom-six of Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Stephane Veilleux, Darroll Powe and Matt Kassian, these three forwards are going to make opposing teams think twice about touching the Wild’s top players. This is important not only because of the fact the team has Koivu, Heatley, Setoguchi and Bouchard, but also rookie 2nd line center Mikael Granlund and, as of July 4th, Twin Cities native Zach Parise and Wisconsin native and new Minnesota #1 defenseman Ryan Suter.
Suddenly, Minnesota is exploding at the seams with talent and skill and—with a tweak here and there—could very well be a perennial Cup contender already. The question is: where does this leave Dany Heatley? Where does he fit in with the new-look Wild? Last offseason, he was the big acquisition; he was the Wild’s #1 big gun, and rightfully so. This season, opposing defensemen are going to have their hands full with Parise, a healthy Koivu, Setoguchi, Granlund and a few others, not just “Heater”. Chuck Fletcher and Coach Yeo are going to have to make some hard decisions when it comes to this forward roster. With the talent Minnesota has at its disposal, there is no reason why the aging Matt Cullen should be a top-six player. The same could be said for Bouchard and his injury history. He doesn’t belong in a grinding role and he’s too much of a target when in the lineup in a top-six role. It also doesn’t help him that there are three or four very talented young guys down in Houston that are ready to be inserted into the Wild lineup.
If I’m Coach Yeo, I draw up my top line like so. The first line should be Parise-Koivu-Heatley, no question. Heatley may be getting older, but the guy still led the Wild in scoring last season with 24 goals and 29 assists for 53 points and a plus-2 rating after playing all 82 games with an injury. The quality of his line-mates also fluctuated as the injury bug progressed. He went from playing alongside Koivu and Setoguchi to Brodziak and Warren Peters. Mikko Koivu only played 55 games last season, however, he did compile 44 points during that span. If Koivu had been playing all 82 games last year, he would have undoubtedly played alongside Heatley and could have boosted Dany’s numbers by as many as 12 goals, 14 assists and 26 points. Throw Zach Parise into the mix and those numbers only get better for both Heatley and Koivu.
Heatley is a goal scorer, a sniper, and he’ll get you goals when you need them. Parise is also of the same player mold and style in a smaller package. He’ll score some great garbage goals but is certainly no stranger to scoring pretty ones as well. Koivu, known more for assists than goals, is a playmaking specialist. He’s the bigger pivot you want between the two goal-scoring wingers. If the younger Koivu brother can chip in nearly 50 helpers with Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen on his wings, he can certainly do more with Parise and Heatley—and maybe pot a few additional goals for himself. You can be sure this sports writer has visions of Parise-Koivu-Heatley 3-on-2’s and 2-on-1’s dancing in his head.
Another important item that should be on Heatley’s agenda is mentoring Charlie Coyle. Coyle is a big-bodied forward with a goal scorer’s touch that certainly knows how to use the body effectively. If Bouchard and Cullen aren’t the right fit on Granlund’s wing, Coyle most definitely is. Heatley doesn’t have an especially long contract and would be wise to take Coyle under his wing while he has the opportunity. If Coyle—under Heatley’s tutelage—adapts well to the NHL, the Wild could have some incredibly lethal secondary scoring from a Setoguchi-Granlund-Coyle 2nd line.
While Heatley may not be in the long term plans for the new-look Wild, he is certainly a very important piece of the present and his success may determine whether the Wild make a deep playoff run or miss postseason action all together. Minnesota fans certainly hope it is the former.