In the second period of last Friday night's game between Denver and Minnesota Duluth, Denver's Danton Heinen tried to skate the puck into the offensive zone when he was tripped up trying to evade a defender at the blue line.
"Hey! He just kneed the best player in the league!," his head coach Jim Montgomery screamed across the ice at the official, trying, though not succeeding, to draw a penalty call.
Montgomery has a bit of a reputation for over-selling his things a bit--necessary just to remind people you exist in the crowded Denver market, perhaps--but he's not far off in his assessment of Heinen.
I profiled Heinen last season just four games into his college career. The article focused on Heinen's rapid upward ascent in development that brought him to the Pioneers a year earlier than initially expected, and the long-term promise he showed as a prospect. As it turned out, the former had an affect on the latter, and Heinen ended his rookie season tied for the NCHC league lead in scoring with 45 points in 40 games.
Such a successful rookie season in such a tough league drastically changed expectations for Heinen moving forward. He became one of the more promising prospects in the Bruins' organization, and the idea of him leaving college hockey for the pros after this season became a real possibility.
I decided to check in on Heinen, once again playing in Duluth, almost a year later to see how his game has developed since.
The good news for Bruins fans is that Heinen looks like pretty much the same player that he was last year, but a year older and more mature. The Pioneers list him at 161 lbs, which is what he was listed at last year, but it looks like he's added a few pounds both in the upper and lower body. He's always going to be a player that relies on being lithe and quick rather than brute physical strength. But the extra muscle has made him a stronger skater and stronger on the puck. He made a nice play in the third period when he was able to absorb a big hit, and still had the strength and balance to move the puck to a teammate.
As a skater, Heinen is what I would call sneaky fast. He's so calm with his movement that it doesn't look like he is moving as fast as he is. He's good on his edges and crosses over his feet well. One of my nit-picks last year was his tendency to get too far above the play when his team was breaking out through the neutral zone. This year, he still serves as the stretch guy frequently, but was better at cutting across the far blue line, opening himself up for the possibility to catch a pass with speed.
His best asset remains his ability to handle the puck. Again, he's so calm and collected when he has the puck on his stick. Even when pressured, he doesn't panic with the puck. He'll hold on to the puck as long as possible to make a play, which really helps drive possession.
So far this season, he's at 4-4-8 in 10 games, which is slightly off his scoring pace from last season, but not bad by any stretch. He'll likely end this season within a few points of point-per-game pace on either side of it. On Friday night, he picked up one second assist. The assist itself wasn't particularly impressive, but when taken over the course of the whole game, he probably spent enough time in the other team's end that getting a point was a fair result.
The offense isn't the big issue though, because that is always going to be there for Heinen. He's proven that he can score at the collegiate level. Between now and whenever he signs with the Bruins, the big key will be adding new facets and layers to his game. The Pioneers have started using him on the penalty kill this year and he was effective in that role. He was also manning the right point on Denver's power play at times, where he bombed an impressive one-timer that just missed the upper corner of the net.
All in all, Heinen continues to be on the right path; a path that will likely lead him to the NHL sooner rather than later. It would not be a surprise if this was Heinen's last year with the Pioneers. He may not be ready for the NHL immediately, but with a season or two in the minor leagues, he could be a very effective player for the Bruins.